In the early 20th century, the American Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her late mother at a church in West Virginia. And since the 1920s we have been settled with a Sunday celebration in May that is at the same time an occasion to celebrate mothers and motherhood and a major commercial event for retailers.
On this day on which we celebrate all that mothers did and maybe still do for us, we might also have a look at the courageous actions of mothers who had to do more than providing their offspring with food, shelter, clothing, guidance and assistance in the smaller and bigger things that children need to grow up into independent adults.
While most mothers have probably supported their adolescent and adult children throughout history, let’s look at how mothers came to the forefront of their respective societies in the later 20th and early 21st century after these children were disappeared.
In August 2020 UN Secretary General António Guterres said “The crime of enforced disappearance is rife across the world”.
It might spring to mind that there were the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who gathered in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires in April 1977. They demanded the live reappearance of their children who had disappeared, most often at the hands of identified or unidentified security forces of the military junta that was in power at the time. By declaring a state of emergency, the authorities could expel them from the square. During a local pilgrimage that took place a couple of months later, the mothers decided to wear their children’s white diapers as kerchiefs in order to stand out and be recognized as mothers of disappeared children: the protests culminated in a 24-hour “March of Resistance” around the square in December 1980.
In 1983 democracy was re-established but demands for the prosecution of military personnel involved in the human rights violations of kidnapping, torture and murder continued for many years. The movement went on to gather for marches and demonstrations to hold the military and their helpers accountable, culminating eventually in the “Trial of the Juntas” of 1985.
The US-backed actions of the junta against people suspected to be socialists, left-leaning Peronists, and guerrilleros, are known as the Dirty War. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have received widespread support and recognition by many international organizations, including being the first organization honoured by the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was an active supporter of the association, for which he was also the subject of harassment by the dictatorship at the time.
Similarly, in neighboring Chile, the mothers of the disappeared in that country gathered to protest against the enforced disappearances of their children and grandchildren under Pinochet’s rule. Many of those children—born to women detained and murdered during their time in captivity—were forced to live with families loyal to the regime.
The Madres formed similar nonviolent protest groups to oppose disappearances in other authoritarian regimes, in particular Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
But these movements were not limited to South America. More recent examples are the mothers and families of disappeared students and others in Mexico.
On the other side of the world, mothers banded together to ask about the large number of disappearances in Sri Lanka during that country’s civil war that killed an estimated 100,000. There, the number of the disappeared amounts to approximately 20,000, mostly of Tamil ethnicity according to reports by the BBC.
Nigeria has seen the repeated kidnappings of hundreds of children, and their abductions galvanized protests of mothers and families as well as attention abroad.
As is quite common in cases of war and civil war exact numbers are hard to come by and usually vary according to the originator of the statistics. Sadly, a lot of disappearances do result in death and remains cannot be easily found.
One has to be aware that each and every single and tragic disappearance of a child, a daughter or son, a brother or sister, a grandchild or friend can at times not be the effect of a tragic,isolated incident (on the basis of voluntary or individual criminal intent). In certain circumstances, disappearances are, in fact, systematic approaches by governments, their enabling supporters, or opposing factions; the objective is to suppress dissenting voices, forcibly recruiting new fighters, and subjecting still others to slave labour.
In these instances, the missing family members often do not reappear in their lifetimes. In light of this, we now have an International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances (August 30).
As we celebrate Mother’s Day in affluent societies this May 2021–where the prevailing thought about this occasion might just be one of deciding whether to buy flowers, chocolates, or both—one might want to have a look around at what mothers and their allies could and can achieve when applying nonviolent tactics.
Michaela Ehring teaches English and German as a second language and serves on Peace Magazine’s editorial group.