OPINION: Remember the women who risk everything to bring their loved ones back

by Lisa Maracani | Amnesty International
Friday, 30 August 2019 09:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A group of women hold up placards at a silent protest to commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Colombo, Sri Lanka August 30, 2016. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Because the majority of those forcibly disappeared are men, it is often women – wives, mothers, daughters – who lead the fight for accountability

Lisa Maracani, researcher and policy advisor for Amnesty International’s Human Rights Defenders Programme.

"Throughout the civil war in Sri Lanka… it has been women who have been the face of all the disappeared. Women, refusing to disappear, standing in for their loved ones who have been made invisible."

These are the powerful words of Subha Wijesiriwardena, a Sri Lankan feminist and queer activist.

Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of enforced disappearance in the world – there are at least 60,000 people whose whereabouts are unknown.

Families affected by enforced disappearance live through unimaginable torment.

When people vanish without a trace, with the acquiescence of the state who then denies all knowledge, it’s impossible to move on.

Every day relatives of the disappeared wake up wondering where their loved ones are.

Without the truth they are unable to seek justice or even properly grieve, and sometimes searching for the truth puts people in great danger.

This doesn’t mean they stop trying, however.

All over the world there are groups of people fighting to find out the fate of their loved ones, determined to get justice and refusing to be silenced.

Because the majority of those forcibly disappeared are men, it is often women – wives, mothers, daughters – who lead the fight for accountability.

Noura Ghazi is one of these women. In Syria more than 90,000 people have gone missing since the start of the war. Noura’s husband, human rights defender Bassel Khartabil, was arrested in 2012 and in 2015 she lost contact with him. In 2017, she received confirmation that he had been executed.

In 2017 Noura, a human rights lawyer, founded Families for Freedom, one of the first women-led movements in the country. Families for Freedom brings together Syrians from all over the country to campaign and lobby for the return of Syria’s disappeared. 

"Families for Freedom has kept me going since my husband was executed," says Noura. "[I feel] every prisoner’s case is my business and it’s my responsibility to fight for them. I feel women are best placed to deal with this issue, not just because they are the ones most affected by such violation, but because of the leading role they play in building Syria’s future."

There are similar stories in Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Egypt, Chile, Mexico and Lebanon.

Women across the world are fighting back against silence.

Their determination is something perpetrators will have to contend with as long as these women have breath in their bodies.

If countries are serious about ending enforced disappearances, it’s essential women human rights defenders at the forefront of the right for justice.

They must not be forgotten, they must be recognised and protected.