Decades after the civil war, wives of missing men in Lebanon continue to suffer – report

Damaged buildings in LebanonThe wives of the missing and disappeared in Lebanon continue to suffer serious social, psychological, legal and financial effects on their lives and the lives of their children, says a new report by the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at Lebanese American University.

The 46-page report, ‘Living with the Shadows of the Past: The Impact of Disappearance on Wives of the Missing in Lebanon,’ written by Dr Christalla Yakinthou, a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham, is based on extensive interviews with 23 wives of diverse backgrounds. It reveals that they continue to search for answers and relief from the government decades after their husbands went missing during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.

None of the women interviewed for the study had received clear information from the government about the fate of their husbands. The women were most likely to receive updates on commissions, laws and progress on the disappeared from civil society groups or by word of mouth.

Dr Yakinthou said: ‘These women, often trapped in the moment when their husband went missing, continue to exist in a state of social and legal limbo, living with the shadows of the past.

‘The wives of missing or disappeared persons in Lebanon endure practical, legal, and emotional hardships. Legal and administrative procedures such as accessing bank accounts, applying for children’s identity documents, claiming inheritance, transferring property titles, and remarriage are extremely difficult. If the missing person was the primary wage earner, financial hardship pervades the family’s daily life.

‘Compounding these problems, families often experience isolation, intimidation, and extortion, sometimes at the hands of those responsible for committing the disappearance.

‘In seeking redress in a patriarchal environment, these women also have to negotiate a social and political context that is highly discriminatory towards them, contributing to the already overwhelming challenge of finding answers and support from relevant authorities.’

Myriam Sfeir Murad, Assistant Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, said: ‘The primary, and sometimes only, concern of these women is to know what happened to their husbands. For many, justice is learning the truth, whether their husbands are alive or dead.’

One woman interviewed for the study said: ‘I never imagined that we’d hear nothing about him ... Why won’t they tell us whether they are dead or alive? ... If they’re dead, where are they buried?’

Many of the wives took on the burden of looking for their husbands themselves, often believing it would be less risky for a female relative than a male relative. However, this was not always true. Of the 23 women interviewed, 15 were victims of one or more extortion attempts.

For all of the women interviewed, life changed immediately and drastically when their husbands disappeared. Many spoke of experiencing chronic physical and psychological symptoms, consistent with exposure to trauma. Almost all talked about how they felt compelled to become both mother and father to their children.

The loss of their husbands – the primary wage earners – strained the families’ finances, and almost all of the women felt added financial pressures, with many entering the workforce for the first time. As one woman recounted: ‘We sold his car [to live]. The government didn’t pay us his pension ... [His employers] stopped his salary immediately after they found out he was kidnapped.’

As their stories reveal, the hardships experienced by wives of the disappeared are compounded by patriarchal laws and practices in Lebanon that require the authority of a male family member to carry out legal and administrative transactions, such as accessing bank accounts, transferring property titles, claiming inheritance, and applying for children’s identity documents.

Because the government has done so little to address these violations in the years since the war, the interviewees were skeptical that Lebanese officials could – or would – provide basic remedies for the violations they had suffered.

Carmen Hassoun Abou Jaoudé, Head of Office in Lebanon for the International Center for Transitional Justice, said: ‘In a culture where there is enormous reluctance to talk about the war and its legacy, the families of the disappeared continue to be overlooked and ignored. They are unwelcome reminders of an unresolved past. But they have the right to know the truth and to reparations, as direct victims of these crimes, and the government must respect that.’

Looking ahead, the report makes important recommendations to Lebanese policy makers and civil society on how to address the rights and needs of the families of the disappeared.

At the top of the list is legislation creating a legal certificate that would allow families to declare their loved ones ‘absent by reason of disappearance,’ not dead. This would help to avoid the moral and emotional hardship of declaring dead someone whose fate remains unknown. It would provide measures to resolve some of the legal ambiguities that surround the disappeared and allow relatives to exercise their rights to child custody, inheritance, insurance, transfer of property and remarriage, among others.

Dr Yakinthou said: ‘As victims and survivors of grave human rights violations whose basic rights have not been met, these women relay in this report their most pressing demands and views on their government. In a context of tremendous loss, what they ask for is a basic remedy. Without serious attention from senior Lebanese officials, this issue will continue to stall – leaving families in limbo and breaching their right to justice and truth.

‘The women interviewed for this study offered a number of concrete recommendations for how the issue of enforced disappearance should be addressed by Lebanese policy makers and civil society. While some of the recommendations require parliamentary support, others can be passed by ministerial initiatives.

‘Many participants identified the need for political support and assistance from the international community in finding ways to meet their right to justice and truth. Without such assistance, it is unlikely there will be sufficient impetus for the Lebanese state to take action and provide appropriate remedies.’

The report, funded by the European Union and UN Women and launched today (20 April), also calls for an independent investigatory body to be established to gather and share information about the fate of the missing.

Notes to editors

For further information, please contact Stuart Gillespie in the University of Birmingham press office on +44 (0)121 414 9041. Out of hours, please call +44 (0)7789921165.

Download the full report.

About ICTJ  

  • ICTJassists societies confronting massive human rights abuses to promote accountability, pursue truth, provide reparations, and build trustworthy institutions. Committed to the vindication of victims’ rights and the promotion of gender justice, ICTJ provides expert technical advice, policy analysis, and comparative research on transitional justice approaches, including criminal prosecutions, reparations initiatives, truth seeking and memory, and institutional reform.

About IWSAW

  • Established in 1973 by the Lebanese American University, the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World(IWSAW) is committed to conducting pioneering academic research on women in the Arab world. The institute also seeks to empower women through development programs and education, and to serve as a catalyst for policy change regarding women’s rights in the region.

Media Contacts

Kelli Muddell, Director of ICTJ’s Gender Justice Program

Tel: +1 917 637 3814

Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab Worldat the Lebanese American University

Tel: + 961 1 786 456 Ext. 1128