Issues and Trends on Enforced Disappearances And Women and Disadvantages and Obstacles Women Face In the Exercise of their Human Rights
By Mary Aileen D. Bacalso
Secretary-General, Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
and Focal Person, International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED)
Delivered at the Experts’ Conference on Gender and Enforced Disappearances, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia April 18, 2012
Source: Icaed Int’l
Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances, I thank you very much for this opportunity to be part of this conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Enforced disappearances occur in countries both with undemocratic regimes and even in countries that claim to be democratic. Occurring in the context of poverty and social injustice, enforced disappearances are victimizing not only those who disappeared, but equally their surviving mothers, wives, daughters who bear the brunt of the consequences of the crime.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UN WGEID), in its 2011 Report, speaks of 53,771 cases from 87 countries. These are not mere statistics, but the figures represent untold sufferings, especially of women. The global magnitude of the crime urged the United Nations to adopt without a vote the 1992 UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Further, to fill in the gaps in the then existing UN systems, the UN adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in December 2006, at present signed by 91 States and ratified by 32.
In the course of working for families of the disappeared in my own country, in neighboring Asian countries and in other parts of the world, I have had the opportunity to integrate with the families of the disappeared who continue to suffer from the never-ending victimization, aptly articulated in many ways in the WGEID’s General Comment.
A 16-year old lady in sari and veil was one of the 77 individual family members of the disappeared whom I met in the office of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in the disputed state of Kashmir in 2003. This lady told of the nightmare of her twin sister’s life when her sister was harassed by the perpetrator of her father’s disappearance. This perpetrator confessed having disappeared this lady’s father. He offered to her sister that he would surface her father alive if she would sleep with him. For many months, her sister literally lost her speech due to fear. Efforts of her organization to help her return to her normal self eventually helped her regain her speech and be reintegrated with her family.
In Indonesia, I first met Ibu (or Madam) N when her organization, the Indonesian Association of Families of the Disappeared (IKOHI) was launched in 2003. She does not speak my language and I do not speak hers, but her actions speak a thousand words of solidarity amidst the pain of losing her son who was among the 13 student activists who disappeared at the height of the anti-dictatorship campaign in Indonesia in the late ‘90s. That first meeting was followed by several occasions in Indonesia where she joined our meetings with national authorities. Little did I know that in between these encounters, she had repeatedly succumbed to a psychiatric illness. Once, she was seen shouting in front of a government building to demand the release of her son. When our former Chairperson, Munir was treacherously poisoned by arsenic by alleged members of the Indonesian military intelligence in a Garuda flightfrom Jakarta to Amsterdam on 7 Sept. 2004, her world was shattered. She was wailing in public events mourning for the loss of her biological son and for the loss of Munir whom she embraced as her own son.
In my own country, during the supposedly democratic administration of the late President Corazon Aquino, Mother F. lost her two sons – one was extrajudicially killed while the other involuntarily disappeared. These major losses in her life never dampened her spirit. She joined the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND). As years went by, this courageous lady grew physically older and weaker. Only last year did I hear that during her twilight years, she was wandering around searching for food, seeking support from her family members who were not in the position to help. Having died both sick and hungry, she was beyond recognition inside her coffin. Physically, she was skin and bonesof a woman who struggled for life till the very end. Like many parents of the disappeared, she wanted to close her eyes seeing the dawn of truth and justice – a dream she never came to realize.
A research paper produced by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, entitled: “ Half Widow, Half Wife,” states that: “the absence of husbands renders women economically vulnerable.” Further, it states that the half widow is not equipped educationally or socially to begin earning for her family. “ During the day, I would beg. In the evening, I wash neighbors’ dishes. That is how I filled the rent. I would not tell anyone, not even the landlord about my husband. I would say he is on duty.”
“ Every now and then, someone comes to hear our story. But I have been raising these girls without a father. I don’t need to be reminded of that. I need jobs. Can someone provide my daughters jobs? We are not asking for handouts. My daughters will work. As a single mother, I had educated them.” Thus, states a half widow.
“ People have good reasons to question the safety and chastity of a woman alone. A few months ago, our neighbourhood was cordoned off for almost a week. Soldiers insisted on checking women’s breasts for grenades. Who knows what they did in homes without men?” “ (Half Widow, Half Wife)
In some contexts, daughters whose mothers remarried are also vulnerable to sexual abuses by their stepfathers. Worse still, their mothers take sides with their second husbands, leaving their daughters devastated even more.
There are some who take up the challenge of going beyond victimization and transforming themselves from victims to human rights defenders. But as defenders, they are frowned upon by society and branded as subversives and are themselves vulnerable to further violations.
There are also women who were pregnant when their husbands disappeared. Some had a miscarriage, others attempted to have or really had their babies aborted. Those who delivered their children were confronted with the insecurity of being unable to take care of another child whose father disappeared.
In Latin America, pregnant women were themselves disappeared and their children were born in captivity, sold for adoption and deprived of historical identity. As fruits of the persistent struggle to find these children and coupled with developments in science, a number of them were identified and reunited with their mothers’ biological families. Yet there are still many others who remain disappeared.
In more difficult circumstances, others were impregnated by their perpetrators, a situation so cruel and so complicated for victims to face.
In search for disappeared persons, victims may be found alive, albeit rarely. In many cases, they are never found. Others are found dead. Amidst all these processes of search, a global effort on this is the process of setting the Minimum Standards for Psychosocial Work in Exhumation Processes, Forced Disappearance, Justice and Truth.
Majority of the family members of victims of enforced disappearances are women who bear the brunt of the consequences especially because of women’s position in society. Living in a state of perpetual limbo, their status is ambivalent. Are they married? single? separated? For the absence of legal recognition of the status of women survivors of enforced disappearance, they receive no legal relief needed to pick up the broken pieces of their lives. In a society where men are expected to be the breadwinners, these women are generally ill-prepared for the consequences – they are forced to do odd jobs, take care of their children without social benefits, live a hand-to-mouth existence.
Stigmatized by society, they are accused of attracting men. Remarriage is a difficult option. Worse still, they are considered as burdens by their parents-in-law who themselves are economically hard up and therefore, incapable of responding to their economic needs. Returned to their biological parents to be taken care of is not an option. When life becomes so unbearable, some of them succumb to mental problems.
In general, women lack the understanding of the political context why their loved ones disappeared. This reality further impedes the process of healing and moving on, because the enforced disappearance brought with it some personal guilt among the surviving family members stemming from some family conflicts that may have occurred prior to the disappearance or guilt borne out of helplessness and inability to rescue their loved ones from the perpetrators.
Enforced disappearance causes disintegration of the family with the family members having to face security problems, economic pressure, deteriorating health, etc.
Civil society organizations are hampered by legal impediments and resources constraints. Government support is almost totally absent. Victims are bereft of the full support they very well deserve. Making the family whole again by healing wounds and mending scars, transforming victims to healers and promoting a cycle of healing are a major challenges.
At no better time than now that the UN WGEID has more profoundly looked into the issue vis-a-vis women who bear the brunt of the horrible consequences of the crime. A significant development in the struggle against enforced disappearances is the drafting of the General Comment on Gender Equality and Enforced Disappearances or General Comment on Women Victims and Applying a Gender Perspective on Enforced Disappearance.
Distinguished members of the UN WGEID, other organizers of this conference, friends, ladies and gentlemen, this gathering is indeed a giant step in the whole process of transforming women family members of the disappeared from pathetic victims into empowered catalysts for the eradication of enforced disappearances from the face of the earth.
Thank you very much.
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