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A Call for A Feminist Perspective on Enforced Disappearances

What’s Gender Got to Do With it?


The prohibition on enforced disappearances is a rather novel human right, set out in the 2010 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Since then, the protection against the practice of disappearances has been cemented. International and regional bodies have elaborated on jurisprudence against disappearances, focusing on the practice’s elements, the circumstances under which disappearances occur and the best means to correct the ills of disappearances through reparation. Although international discussion on the phenomenon’s transformation is vivid and centers on novel practices which fall under the disappearance concept (such as the disappearance of migrants as an effect of pushbacks, short-term disappearances, or massive disappearances during hostilities), there is very little discussion regarding the disappearances of women. In fact, even though there are many instances which reveal that the commission of disappearances was gender-motivated, enforced disappearances have not been thoroughly explored from a feminist perspective yet. This blog post draws attention to the gender-related motives and gendered impact of enforced disappearances and calls for a feminist perspective on the matter in research and international institutions’ work.

Stereotypical Understandings of Enforced Disappearances

The definition of the prohibition of enforced disappearance under the ICPPED does not differentiate between victims. For an enforced disappearance to be acknowledged, the following elements shall be identified: a deprivation of liberty against the person’s will (a), involvement of state agents, or non-state actors acting with a state’s acquiescence (b), and the subsequent concealment of the victim’s traces and whereabouts (OHCHR, p. 10).

This definition follows the idea that the commission of disappearances is indiscriminate and may target anyone that is considered to be the enemy of a regime, or authoritative power at a certain spatio-temporal framework. According to the archetypical practice of disappearances in Latin America, men were targeted more often than women, as they were deemed to be bigger threats for the juntas and totalitarian regimes governing these states at the time. The traditional understanding of enforced disappearances links the practice to an extended state policy of terror, which purports to exterminate any form of political opposition. In this respect, most disappearances in Latin America were against trade union leaders, university professors and students, political opponents, or anyone expressing subversive ideas, and men were perceived as comprising the majority of victims.

In addition, although the definition of enforced disappearance under the ICPPED does not require the victim’s subjection to ill-treatment or their potential suffering during the term of their disappearance, this practice almost always implies the victims’ subjection to such extreme suffering. Through enforced disappearances, captors attempt to bring the victims under their control, bend any physical and mental resistance of theirs, and render them vulnerable. This practice was also deemed as necessary to deter the danger posed by the archetypical victim of enforced disappearances, the strong male citizen, whose political ideas constitute a threat to those in command and who needs to be rendered vulnerable in order to be confronted.

These common readings of enforced disappearances demonstrate a danger of stereotypical interpretations lurking. Such interpretations may easily shape the victim’s ideotype in a way that only suits men, even though, as the following section highlights, there are now several occasions which prove the opposite, i.e. that women are usually the victims of enforced disappearances particularly due to their vulnerability.

The Need for a Feminist Perspective on Disappearances

Since 2000, certain incidents brought the need to associate enforced disappearances with women’s rights to the forefront. The systematic disappearances of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, became the propulsion engine to this end, as a clear pattern of women being abducted, sexually assaulted, mutilated, brutally harmed, and eventually killed arose in the city. The collection of information was not an easy task, due to the turbulence existing in Mexico at that time. However, it was fairly known that women were kidnapped by non-state actors, whose actions were tolerated by state authorities. It was either the drug gangs and organized crime or the so-called ‘parapolice’ that kidnapped women and concealed their traces afterwards. These women did not pose a ‘threat’ to the perpetrators; contrarily, they were treated inhumanely to cater to their perpetrator’s sexual pleasure. No information on their whereabouts was made available by state authorities, who denied any kind of involvement and did not provide families information about their disappearance. The ‘best-case scenario’ for most families was that the victims’ bodies would be found days later thrown in the fields.

Various international actors exerted high pressure on Mexico, asking for the authorities to extend their investigation and solve these cases. Amnesty International, alongside other NGOs made on-site visits and reported on the case in 2003, while the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) stressed that the gender aspect had been a neglected parameter of disappearances for a long time (para 11). For the first time, disappearances were directly linked to gender-based violence (GBV) and to how state authorities tolerated, or even supported it. The approach of the CEDAW Committee could be characterized as remarkable, or even brave, given that the ICPPED was still being drafted at that time. The said committee demonstrated its ability to identify intersections between various human rights violations and the gendered impacts and gender-related motives behind such violations. It thus underlined that it “is concerned that women and girls have been subjected to increasing levels and different types of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, forced disappearances, torture and murders, especially feminicide […] by non-state actors such as organized crime groups”. Although the right against enforced disappearance was not yet a binding ICPPED provision at that time, the CEDAW Committee took the opportunity to bring to the surface the gendered aspect of these disappearances. The systematic disappearences of women in Mexico eventually reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, leading to the famous González et al (“Cotton Field”) v Mexico decision. This is the first attestation of how insecurity and state turbulence affect gender equality.

From that point on, it was easier to identify the connection between disappearances and GBV. In 2014, this link became more evident after the massive kidnapping of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, which rebooted the discussion over the gendered impacts of enforced disappearances. More specifically, the Chibok girls were abducted by the Boko-Haram militias and were eventually forced into sex slavery, raped and were intentionally impregnated. The legal background of this incident is quite different from the previous ones, primarily due to the attribution of disappearances to a territorial non-state actor that effectively controlled part of Nigeria. Although Nigeria was, at the time, a state party to the ICPPED, it did not take any bold steps to end these disappearances, unlike other institutions. The incident topped the news worldwide, and the moto #bringbackourgirls went viral. However, the ICPPED seemed to be of no practical assistance.

GBV and Enforced Disappearances: The Steps Forward

Enforced disappearances of women fueled by GBV have not yet attracted institutional attention. After the CEDAW Committee’s concluding observations on Mexico, little progress was reported, and the monitoring bodies of the ICPPED and women’s rights have not proceeded with any joint initiatives on the topic. The only exception to this overall inaction is the Comment of UNWGEID, which mentions in straight lines that ‘[w]hen women are victims of enforced disappearances because they are women, they are also victims of gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of discrimination against women’ (para 3). The connection of GBV and disappearances is usually overlooked in international law understandings, as focus is placed on the disappearance per se whilst the gendered setup of society and the structural consequences that emerge from such a setup are overlooked. So far, international institutions have been proven ineffective in highlighting the inner connection between GBV and the enforced disappearances of women and girls.

The protection of victims is deficient regarding two additional aspects. First, the disappeared women who happen to reappear and get released by their captors face extreme difficulty in reintegrating into society. Not only are they usually marginalized by their families and local communities, but they are also not provided with sufficient information on how to seek relief, and on their right to reparation. In this regard, the victimhood of the disappeared women does not stop as soon as their disappearance is over. Structural inequalities prevent the full enjoyment of their rights as enforced disappearance victims.

Second, it is documented that women are mostly undermined and ignored by national authorities when they seek justice either individually as direct victims, or indirectly through concerned relatives. Women’s access to conclusive evidence over disappearances they have a legal interest in, is largely limited, and there are so far few examples which prove this proposition. Their inability to learn more about a crime that affects their lives magnifies their anxiety and anguish.

Overall, the gendered impacts and gender-related motives of enforced disappearances have been widely neglected. As the analysis above has stressed, international and regional conventions and the jurisprudence of human rights bodies has not drawn yet a clear link between disappearances and GBV and affirm that disappearances may be the result of gender inequality. Meanwhile, a feminist critique and understanding of enforced disappearance remains at the periphery of international legal research. In light of the aforementioned, women seem to remain victims of enforced disappearances and simultaneously the victims of long-standing systemic deficiencies. It is only wished that the gender-related motives and gendered impact of enforced disappearances will soon be acknowledged and that a much-needed feminist perspective on the matter will find its way into relevant research and international institutions’ works.

Ioanna Pervou

Dr Ioanna Pervou is currently a lecturer in public international law at Democritus University of Thrace. She is alsο a Visiting Fellow at LSE Health, focusing on the influence of AI in health law.

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