International Women's Day: helping women take matters into their own hands

Although the vast majority of people who go missing in connection with armed conflict are men, the mothers, wives and other family members they leave behind also suffer enormously and often face severe hardship.

On the occasion of International Women's Day, the ICRC is calling for more action to help these women meet their specific needs and regain dignity and hope, while emphasizing the responsibility of parties to a conflict to search for the missing and provide information for the families.

"Women all over the world have shown an extraordinary capacity to overcome hardship and take their fate into their own hands," said Maria-Teresa Garrido Otoya, the ICRC's adviser on issues relating to women and war. "Given half a chance, they find novel and effective ways of providing for themselves and their families."

Beyond the anguish of not knowing what happened to their husbands, sons or other relatives, women and girls in these situations typically face daunting practical difficulties. Because in many cases they have lost a breadwinner, they struggle to provide such basic necessities as food for their families and education for their children. "They also face legal and administrative challenges when it comes to such things as claiming their husband's property or their eligibility for public assistance to ease their families' economic hardship," said Ms Garrido Otoya. "In addition, they are often stigmatized in their communities. For example, not knowing whether their spouses are alive or dead, many do not dress or behave like widows. Their communities are unable to understand their behaviour, leaving them with no one to turn to for support."

The ICRC endeavours to provide a whole range of support to address the specific needs of women with missing loved ones. In Libya, families are still approaching the organization on a daily basis in the hope that it can help find out what became of their loved ones. In Iraq, the ICRC helps women whose husbands have gone missing by helping them set up small income-generating activities, like running a shop or working as a hairdresser. (see also: Households headed by women in Iraq: a case for action)

In Nepal, the ICRC makes counselling available and helps set up support groups to relieve some of the distress and difficulty that the wives and mothers of missing persons experience. In the support groups, women come together and are able to share their suffering, sometimes even when they and their families were formerly on opposite sides in the conflict.

Devisara and Laxmi are two Nepalese women ostensibly on opposite sides who are now allies – they are united in pain. "For days, we walked alone," said Devisara. "Now, we are walking in search of justice as victims from both sides of the conflict. This is equally beautiful. We share grief with each other." Laxmi agrees that they should not lose hope and that they must move ahead.

Under international humanitarian law, everyone has the right to know what happened to missing relatives. It is the responsibility of parties to a conflict to search for the missing and to provide the families with information on their fate, and this obligation continues after the end of the armed conflict. The authorities must see to it that the needs of the families of missing persons are met. The most effective and appropriate way of doing so is to provide women heading households with the tools to fend for themselves without outside help.

ICRC head of delegation in Nepal Sylvie Thoral speaks about Nepalese women and their missing relatives in this interview. Over 1,400 people, mostly men, are still missing following ten years of armed conflict in the country.