There is no consistent accounting for individuals who disappear without a trace. The problem is partly due to obstacles in data collection, partly to authorities who deliberately withhold information, and partly to “witnesses” with self-serving motives who provide inconsistent or false information about incidents in which people disappear.
Often when a man disappears, his wife becomes head of the family literally overnight. But in many cases she does not have the education, emotional support, or sufficient work opportunities to enable her to provide for the family.
Laws in many countries discriminate against women. For example, women are often prohibited from inheriting land or gaining access to bank accounts. These laws are so restrictive that compliance is impossible. When there is no clear proof of her husband’s death, a wife can be denied the help she would otherwise be given, and finds herself unable to provide food and shelter for her family.
As a result, children are sold, abandoned, given away, or the families are left homeless.
It is impossible to estimate how many people are missing from armed conflicts. To get some idea of the scale of the problem: the Balkans conflict in the 1990s left more than 100,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands were made homeless, and today there are greater than 115 family associations still trying to find out what happened to missing relatives. Further, in many countries few family associations exist. Therefore, accurate record-keeping is difficult or non-existent. In addition, since the beginning of documented history of conflicts, this issue has been historically overlooked.