Project: Legacies of the Disappeared: Missing Children and Parental Harm in Protracted Social Conflict


This article examines ‘parental harm’ – a harm that occurs when a parent loses or faces the threat of losing a child. We contend that the manipulation and severing of relationships between parents and children has played a central role in war and oppression across historical contexts. Parental harm has long-term and pervasive effects and results in complex legacies for carers and their communities. Despite its grave impact, there is little research within International Relations into parental harm and understanding of its effects. We conceptualise parental harm through two frames – the ‘harm of separation’ and ‘harm to the ability to parent’ – and theorise gendered dimensions of how it is perpetuated and experienced. As such, we advance feminist understandings of family as a gendered institution that shapes the conduct of war and institutionalises racialised oppression. Our conception of parental harm offers novel insights into the relationship between intimate relations, the family, and state power and practices. We illustrate our conceptual arguments through two examples: the control and manipulation of family in antebellum slavery in the United States and the targeting of Tamil children in disappearances in Sri Lanka. These examples demonstrate the pervasiveness of parental harm across contexts and forms of violence.

Key Findings

  • Parental harm includes both the harm of separation and harm to the ability to parent.
  • Parental harm is a distinct, under-recognised harm perpetuated by states in contexts of war and oppression.
  • The article illustrates that parental harm was carried out in the contexts of state enforced disappearances against the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and in antebellum slavery in the United States.
  • Parental harm is carried out and experienced in gendered and racialised ways.
  • Parental harm plays a central role in systems of oppression and war.
  • Parental harm results in long-term and pervasive legacies for families and communities.
  • Parental harm is a useful concept to further understand the relationship between state power and the family and intimate relations in International Relations.