Women Face Unique Challenges in Searching for Missing Loved Ones from Conflict and Human Rights Abuses

On the occasion of the International Woman’s Day, the 8th of March, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) would like to highlight the challenges faced by women in searching for loved ones missing from armed conflict and human rights abuses.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina it has been determined that 87% of those missing from the armed conflicts of the 1990’s were men, leaving women and children to struggle with the consequences. A similar pattern is visible in the rest of the Western Balkans, as well as globally, according to ICMP data.

In BiH, over 30,000 persons were missing as a consequence of the armed conflicts of the 1990’s and the latest statistics from the Missing Persons Institute Central Records (CEN) and ICMP’s analysis indicate that a huge majority, or 87%, of missing were male. This means the majority of those left behind are women, often with children to provide for. Some of these women were war crimes victims themselves, e.g. of sexual violence and rape, and were displaced from their prewar homes. Many come from traditional societies or rural areas and may have limited legal recourse in the access to their rights.

“In spite of their personal hardships, over the years many women have taken a leading role in the non-governmental sector to successfully fight for the resolution of the issue of missing persons in BiH and to raise public awareness on the issue. While conducting these activities they suffer intimidation, face persecution and risk reprisals,” said ICMP Director General Kathryne Bomberger. “We believe this is one of the reasons why the issue of the missing has historically been a silent one and is still a silent one in many other parts of the world,” she added.

In many countries around the world, the uncertainty of the fate of a missing male relative has legal consequences, such as the deprivation of inheritance rights, pension entitlement and compensation and can prevent a woman from remarrying. Furthermore, the plight of survivors has been described as a form of mental torture at the hand of authorities who refuse to recognize the fate and whereabouts of the missing person.

The state of BiH has responded to this situation by creating the first-ever Law on Missing Persons in 2004, which guarantees the families of missing persons the right to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. The BiH law ascribes certain benefits to the families, such as the priority in employment and education, health protection, marking the place of burial and financial support. However, this law has not been fully implemented and the creation of a Fund for the Support of Families of Missing Persons, for example, is still pending.

Although over 70% of the missing have been accounted for in BiH, the issue of missing persons remains one of the major human rights issues in BiH. ICMP has been working for years with civil society groups, mainly composed of and led by women, in educating them about their legal rights and empowering them to become actively engaged as advocates in demanding answers from their authorities regarding the disappearance of loved ones. As part of its mandate, ICMP will remain committed to assisting both BiH governmental and non-governmental organizations in resolving this important issue.