Archive for category Sub-Saharan Africa

Countries in desperate need of ratifying the UN Convention against Torture

Despite ongoing international efforts to eliminate the practice of torture, it is not a question of whether torture still takes place, but rather where in the world it is still practised and how prevalent it is. Currently, more than 40 states across the globe have failed to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and in many of these countries, human rights defenders are raising the alarm, alerting to the constant flow of cases involving torture and ill treatment.

If anything, the recent report on CIA’s use of torture shows that this crime is more prevalent than most of us probably thought. The US is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, yet its own intelligence agency relied on the practice of torture as an integral part of its interrogation technique.

If a country that has committed to respect the UN Convention still allows for the practice of torture, then what is the status in the 40 something countries that are still to adopt it?

We have looked at three of these countries. Despite facing very different problems, they all have one thing in common: none of them has managed to tackle the problem of torture.


As a country with a population of more than a billion, it is not hard to see what an overpowering task it is to eliminate torture. Set on making the country an industrial superpower and creating more jobs, overcoming the enormity of its human rights problems is not an immediate priority – economic reform is.

Nonetheless, it is very worrying that a large number of torture cases in India happen at the hand of the police, and often while the victim is in custody. From 2001 to 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 14,231 deaths in police and judicial custody in India. The vast majority of these deaths can be ascribed to torture.

Only in recent weeks, newspapers have reported on the city of Chennai, where three police officers are currently being investigated for sexual torture of a 19-year old at the local police station. There is also the police commissioner in Delhi who has had to deny claims that the police has used torture to extract confessions. And in Calcutta, the West Bengal Government faces heat over alleged police torture of a woman.

According to various rights organisations, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that still has a long way to go despite its commitments to tackle the most prevalent human rights abuses. While the country has taken positive steps by strengthening laws protecting women and children, its reluctance to hold state officials to account for torture and other abuses continues to foster a culture of corruption and impunity.


To many, Fiji is the perfect holiday destination. With its white sandy beaches and exotic palm trees, this tropical archipelago in the South Pacific could easily be mistaken as paradise on earth. But even paradise has a dark side and in the case of Fiji this dark side involves a poor human rights record.

In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by state officials.
In March 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing two prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by state security officials. Failure by the Fijian authorities to investigate the case has raised red flags about a culture of impunity for police and security forces.

Following last year’s elections, Fiji had its second review by the UN Human Rights Council which, among other things, urged the state to amend repressive decrees that put severe restrictions on freedom of expression, promote women’s rights and ratify the UNCAT.

Despite these recommendations and similar calls from various human rights organisations, the government is still to take action.

In the meantime, cases of police violence and torture involving state officials continue to emerge.

Central African Republic

For more than two years, a violent, sectarian civil war has left Central African Republic (CAR) paralysed, prompting rights organisations to warn of a human rights crisis spiralling out of control.

In the past 12 months alone, at least 5,000 people have been killed and there are reports of torture, including sexual violence, and other human rights abuses.

In January 2015, UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, reported that crimes against humanity have been widely committed by all parties to the ongoing conflict. The Commission strongly recommended that accountability mechanisms be put in place to tackle the ‘cycle of impunity’ in the CAR.

However, recognising that the CAR Government simply does not have the resources nor the political incentive to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Commission has urged the international community to step up and fund a tribunal to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.

These recommendations illustrate how vital it is for CAR to ratify the UNCAT. Until this happens, violence and torture continue to be rampant in the war-torn country.

Source: The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

Source: The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

What difference can the UN Convention against Torture make?

In the first instance, the UNCAT is one of the most important international human rights
instruments in the work against torture which outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.

When a UN member state has become a party to the Convention, the government of that
country is accountable under international law to take action to prevent torture and to support the victims when torture takes place.

According to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “the Convention against Torture requires that all States, and each of us, remain vigilant to the risks of torture. This is what makes it so relevant in 2014, thirty years after its adoption.”

You can read more about the countries that have ratified the UNCAT by clicking on this link. For comprehensive profiles on each UN member state, the United Nations website provides a full country list.

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Story from a Nigerian survivor of torture only reaffirms claims in Amnesty’s new torture report

Whether targeting a Boko Haram suspect, an alleged criminal, a sex worker, or simply part of a minority group, a new Amnesty International report highlights how torture is endemic in Nigeria as the police and military routinely use it to extract confessions, extort money and to break the will of detainees.


Nigerian police sitting atop a police van. Picture courtesy of the Open Society Institute (OSI) ”Criminal Force Torture, Abuse, and Extrajudicial Killings by the Nigeria Police Force” report, May 2010.

The report, entitled ‘Welcome to Hell Fire’, claims torture has become widespread in the police and military hunt for members of Boko Haram – a militant Islamic group, branded as a terrorist organisation by the US, responsible for a string of attacks and death since 2009 including the Chibok Kidnapping on 276 schoolgirls in April 2014.

The report shows that the pursuit of Boko Haram has led to the torture of many suspects who have no ties to the group at all. Because of this campaign, torture has become routine. The report claims that, as a minimum, 5,000 people have been detained since 2009 when military operations began against Boko Haram. While the level of torture victims from this group cannot be fully determined, Amnesty spoke to 500 detainees, their relatives and human rights defenders, all confirming either they had been tortured or they know a detainee who has.

Consequently detainees and ordinary criminal suspects experience torture “as the main interrogation tactic… despite assurances from the Nigerian government to prevent the use of torture.” Torture practices include beatings, rape and other sexual violence, shooting to legs and arms and periods of time laid on beds of nails.

Torture in Nigeria has long been known by the IRCT, the effects of which continue to be addressed by Nigerian IRCT member Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA).

To illustrate the prevalence of torture, the effects of torture and the journey through rehabilitation necessary in just one case, we turn to the story of Leo – a 27-year-old concert-goer who, after happening to stumble across the scene of an earlier robbery in the city of Nsukka, experienced four-months of suffering as the police tortured him repeatedly for a crime which he was not even part of.

Leo’s story: “I do not know now why I was tortured”

Leo, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was travelling to the city of Nsukka, in south-eastern Nigeria, hoping for a relaxing evening with friends at a music event.

Nigerian police training in 2013. Photo: INUSMA/Marco Dormino, used courtesy under Flickr creative commons licence.

Nigerian police training in 2013. Photo: INUSMA/Marco Dormino, used courtesy under Flickr creative commons licence.

On his way to the venue, Leo was approached by four security officials who claimed to recognise him from a robbery that occurred just prior to Leo’s arrival.

“The security forces were looking for a group of hoodlums who had just fled the scene next to the concert venue, and I was accused of being part of the gang,” says Leo. “I tried to explain that I had only just arrived in town, but the explanations fell on deaf ears.

“It was then that the four security guards turned on me and began to beat me,” explains Leo, who still has painful memories of his torture.

Leo’s beating escalated from punches and kicks to being hit with sticks, a shovel and even an iron. The torture continued over a period of a few hours.

“They beat me with whatever they could find nearby,” says Leo. “I had injuries all over my body. I was cut, bleeding and bruised. The pain was unbearable. I could not walk for days afterwards.”

After the beating, an unconscious Leo was taken to the local police station where he was detained, charged with robbery offences and transferred to nearby Nsukka prison, where he spent four months awaiting trial.

Leo does not recall torture while in detention and was released in May 2012 after police could not establish enough evidence against him.

“I do not know now why I was tortured,” says Leo. “I was not part of the crime scene at all and still feel shocked about the attack now, even though it was so brief.”

While in custody, Leo was approached by the team from IRCT member PRAWA, who offered counselling as a way for Leo to talk about the attack.

“The people from PRAWA helped me talk about my experience while I was in prison,” says Leo. “They understood what had happened and encouraged me to talk. They also helped to treat me for my injuries while I was in prison and offered me counselling during my time in prison and when I was released.

“My attackers are wicked people, but counselling has helped come to terms with the attack. I still see the PRAWA psychologist today to talk about any issues I have related to the attack. The attack left me feeling confused, hurt and scared. PRAWA have helped to restore my pride, and my trust in others.”

Now a labourer on a building site, Leo is thankful for his rehabilitation.

“I still feel some pains in my legs due to my injuries and my sexual life has not been the same since due to the injuries I received in the beating,” says Leo.

“But I would say that I am much better than before I met the team at PRAWA. It is good that centres like this exist, and that some people care about helping those who have been tortured regain their lives. I only hope more groups exist to fight torture in society and to provide treatments for victims like me.”

To read the stories of survivors from a range of countries on the IRCT website, click this link.

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Rape used as a routine weapon of torture in the Democratic Republic of Congo

“…The soldiers took turns to hold her or rape her. When she tried to resist they beat her and forced her harder … They tried to tie her legs with anything they could lay hands on to separate her legs…”

– Excerpt from medico-legal report by Freedom from Torture doctor.

It is a shocking description, but sadly one all too common to many women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to a report from IRCT member Freedom from Torture, rape is routinely used as a weapon of torture to prevent women from supporting human rights, politics, or even their high-ranking positions in society.

A woman who was raped by a government soldier recovers at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma. Picture courtesy of Freedom from Torture.

A woman who was raped by a government soldier recovers at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma. Picture courtesy of Freedom from Torture.

The report – Rape as torture in the DRC: Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone – uses extracts from 34 medical assessments from women aged 21 to 60 to show the world what is happening today in the DRC – a country which is hypocritically one of the first signatories to the new International Protocol on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is launched by the UK Government next week.

The women in the report, all of whom remain anonymous, come from a variety of backgrounds, from mothers to university graduates, from doctors to cooks. But the women have one thing in common: they were targeted because of their political involvement as members or supporters of opposition groups, or women’s rights organisations

The activities that led to their arrests included storing and distributing leaflets, banners and tee-shirts and attending meetings and demonstrations. In one story, Jomaphie (not her real name) was arrested by uniformed soldiers while attending a political event in the capital, Kinshasa. She was detained with many others for four days in a small room before being transferred to detention elsewhere.

Men and women were held together for the first night, during which they were given no food or water. Women were removed repeatedly from the room and raped by different soldiers and were beaten when they attempted to resist. The men were separated after the first night but the women remained in the same room for three more nights, during which time they were given biscuits and water and continued to be raped and beaten repeatedly. After this they were transferred from the airport to prison.

Conditions of detention

The women were all arrested by state actors – soldiers, police or members of the security services – and mostly they were detained in state security facilities. They were frequently mistreated during arrest and en route to detention. They described being beaten, hit with rifle butts, rubber truncheons and belts, being restrained face down in the back of a truck and being kicked and stamped on, slapped and punched.

There was no proper judicial process following any arrest and the women had no access to any legal advice or representation. The vast majority were allowed no communication with friends or family.

The conditions in which they were held were foul and unhygienic; with little light or air, no sanitation and without adequate food and water. Women held in solitary confinement described being detained alone in cells as small as one metre square in which they were either unable, or barely able, to lie down. Others were crowded into small cells with up to 20 other people.

The report lists horrors unimaginable to many, but ones which are unfortunately very real indeed. But perhaps the most shocking fact is that the DRC is a signatory of both the UNCAT (United Nations Convention Against Torture) and the OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture) – both legally binding protocols which are meant to ensure that torture is forbidden, and that survivors of torture can seek adequate redress for torture as well as support and assistance to end impunity.

Freedom from Torture has been providing support to people tortured in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1985, and in 2013, 111 survivors of torture from the DRC used our services. The findings of Freedom from Torture suggest that as a matter of urgency the DRC and the international community should be pursuing a more joined-up approach to tackling sexual violence by recognising the links between rape, sexual violence and torture.

To read the full report and for more information, click this link.

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On the forefront: meet the organisations behind the torture rehabilitation movement

WWT - Members series

Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.

Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.

There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.

The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.

Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.

Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.

Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.

Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.

Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.


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The need for better treatment of refugees fleeing torture

Thousands of displaced people walking out of eastern Congo (courtesy of AP Photo/Jerome Delay and

Thousands of displaced people fleeing eastern Congo (courtesy of AP Photo/Jerome Delay and

The fight to find safety away from persecution and torture is tough enough – every year war and conflict, together with ethnic, religious and cultural persecution, force millions of people to flee their home country to lands often unknown other than in name. Fleeing the homeland is not so much a choice but a necessity for survival.

So imagine, after all the struggles to ensure security, being deported back to the country where you were tortured. That’s the reality for 11 Congolese refugees who, until last month, were residing in Tees Valley, north-east England, to escape their torturers.

In the ‘Unsafe Return 2’ report, from UK human rights charity Justice First, evidence suggests 11 out of 15 Congolese refugees whom the charity tracked between November 2011 and September 2013 are again facing persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after UK authorities took the decision to deport them.

It is feared that three out of the 11 deportees have been killed following detention and ill-treatment at the hands of the Congolese authorities.

The case is another which highlights the urgent need for greater safeguards for refugees and asylum seekers to prevent torture from reoccurring, assuring safety and security from their perhaps tormented past.

Many refugees want to return to their home yet many cannot. It is the responsibility of nations providing asylum to rehabilitate torture victims and to safeguard them from ever returning to places where they face, as the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines, “a well-founded fear of being persecuted”.

Over the past several years, the IRCT has undertaken interventions in support of victims of torture and trauma among refugee and internally displaced populations. For example, the PROTECT-ABLE project has trained doctors, member centres have offered rehabilitation services to torture survivors in refugee camps and assisted local health professionals to conduct psychosocial needs assessments of internally displaced persons across the world.

However, more needs to be done to highlight the special needs of asylum seekers and refugees, so they can have their full case heard and can receive proper protection and rehabilitation from torture.

Perhaps most worryingly is this, and many other heavy-handed approaches to asylum seekers in the UK, shows how flawed the UK asylum system may be.

Written by Ashley Scrace, Communications Officer at the IRCT in Copenhagen

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Regaining confidence (and an income): Income-generating activities in Cameroon

During one of the coffee breaks of the Beirut Conference, Peter Kum Che, director of Trauma Centre Cameroon spoke enthusiastically about one of the programmes they run at the centre, an IRCT member based in Yaoundé. The programme is targeted at two groups of marginalised women in Cameroon – prisoners and refugees.

With grants provided by the IRCT under the La Luz fund, the Trauma Centre is training women in sowing, tailoring, fabric dyeing and hair-dressing. The idea is to help women regain confidence and reintegrate in society through an income-generating activity. Some of the women are trained in the Trauma Centre but “the location is not important,” Peter said. They also train women inside the less-pleasant prison facilities.

One of the fabrics dyed by female prisoners in Cameroon

One of the fabrics dyed by female prisoners in Cameroon

Besides vocational training, the Trauma Centre also supports these women with sowing machines and a small setup capital to buy other necessary materials and products.

Every year, these women, in particular those in prison, have the opportunity to showcase their new skills and resulting products at an open-door exhibition at the prison. And people are interested — visitors include government representatives and local personalities. Other exhibitions happen on important dates such as 26 June – the International Day in Support of Torture Victims — and International Women’s Day, when female prisoners are let outside the prison facilities to exhibit their products for one full week.

When I ask, Peter explained that the Trauma Centre monitors the project and does a follow-up evaluation after one full year of training. However, they are quick to see the benefits and move on. “There are many people in need for support,” says Peter.

There might even be some positive ripple effects we don’t know about. “Maybe those women that have been trained are teaching other women in their villages their craft.”

Two years ago, thanks to a generous anonymous donor from Spain, La Luz Foundation was created and has enabled the IRCT to strengthen the support available to women and girl victims of sexual torture. It supports work aimed at those women and girls who are oppressed or in danger of being victims of human rights abuses in particular because they belong to a vulnerable group, whether it is based on belief, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other minority group status. This year’s call for proposals is currently open. Find out more here

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Rehabilitation in Zimbabwe: the community approach

Eugenia Mpande and I sit down in a quiet corner at the conference centre in Yaoundé where our regional meeting of centres from sub-Saharan Africa is taking place. She’s excitedly reflecting on how thrilling it is to meet other anti-torture activists and counsellors of survivors of torture.

“It’s just so rare that we get to meet such like-minded people who are so much in line with what you are doing and what you want to achieve,” she says. “You feel stronger.”

There’s a lot of fear in doing this work, she says, reflecting on the recent arrest of fellow Zimbabwean and previous colleagues . But coming together to share experiences both validates and lifts up other human rights defenders across the region.

Eugenia calls herself a human rights activist, and she has worked to rehabilitate survivors of torture since 2002, when political violence plagued the Zimbabwe in the period around the election. During that contested election, an estimated 30 people were killed and almost 1,500 arrested.

Eugenia now is in her third year of work at Tree of Life, a community-based, survivor-led organisation that rehabilitates survivors of torture, trauma and violence through a specific form of group therapy.

It’s just one example of how an organisation can approach the mental rehabilitation of survivors of torture.

In Zimbabwe, and in sub-Saharan Africa to a large degree, trauma is not necessarily just individual but collective, Eugenia says. Often violence is committed in public, in the presence of an entire community.

“All are witnesses to the violence, and it becomes a larger community story,” she says.

This is particularly true in Zimbabwe, when, in 2008, political violence around the presidential election resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people. But the goal of such violence was to terrorise and intimidate communities and political opponents into voting in a certain direction. Fear within the community destroys the social fabric, Eugenia says, resulting in more crime and violence and precipitating a recurring cycle.

In 2008, “ZANU-PF-led government, at the highest levels, was responsible for widespread and systematic abuses that led to the killing of up to 200 people, the beating and torture of 5,000 more, and the displacement of about 36,000 people.”

Human Rights Watch, 2011

Thus, the intervention and rehabilitation must also take a community approach.

But before beginning any workshops, Tree of Life first identifies the areas in need of their work. They held workshops through the Harare area, Mashonaland to the north, and Matabeleland to the southwest. Matabeleland was the region where the Gukurahundi massacres took place in the early 1980s arising from a political divide following independence that resulted in violent repression by the Fifth Brigade, a specially trained force created by Mugabe. An estimated 20,000 were killed, many in public executions. Eighty percent of adults reported a torture experience, with 50% reporting psychological problems as a result, according to a 1998 study in the region [DOC].

Within a particular community, they identify key people and leaders to help in building a relationship with the community. Those key leaders also assist in identifying individuals who would benefit from the group therapy.

“It can take a lot of time to build these relationships,” Eugenia admits. But this brings a community-driven and grassroots nature to the workshops.

Identified individuals then are interviewed to assess their trauma. Anyone with a history of trauma, torture, or suicidal ideation may join, and between eight and ten are selected for a given workshop.

Tree of Life

As Eugenia begins to explain the process, the name ‘Tree of Life’ immediately becomes so obviously appropriate for this approach to psychosocial rehabilitation. At one point in our discussion, I bring up the Pando trees in the U.S. – it’s a forest of approximately 47,000 trees that all share the same root system. It’s technically the largest single organism in the world. Eugenia beams at the mention.

“Community is very powerful within our culture,” she says.

The Tree of Life approach uses this metaphor of the tree to bring about storytelling and group therapy over three very intense days. The group all stay within the same venue, eating together and sleeping together in preferably natural, outdoor settings. The tree metaphor leads to a greater understanding of the trauma experiences, a greater appreciation for one’s personal strengths and a greater understanding of the importance of community strength and support.

There are eight ‘circles’ through the course of the three-day workshop, where participants are brought together to identify and share the parts of their lives using this tree metaphor: soil (culture), roots (family), trunk (early life), branches (later development), leaves (current life), fruits (high points), scars (the traumas), and finally the power circle.

Through each circle, facilitators guide the participants through personal story-telling, eventually building trust within the group and leading to the ‘scars’ circle.

“It’s step-by-step building trust and respect within the group,” Eugenia says. “Many have not been listened to before, not given a voice. They can go on for a long time, but they are never interrupted.”

The process of sharing one’s traumas and the torture they experienced can be extremely intense and emotional.The facilitators are highly trained and skilled in handling these emotions. Tree of Life also has a comprehensive programme of support and care for the facilitators to prevent secondary traumatisation.

“In our culture, men can’t show emotions, but it happens in our circle.”

It’s a process of building confidence, empowerment and, most importantly, compassion to break the cycle of violence. Perpetrators are often also recommended and welcomed to join in a group, because, Eugenia says, “They also need healing; some of the perpetrators are also victims of organised violence and torture who have been forced or coerced to commit these acts of violence.”

Local human rights groups have reported that those who committed serious crimes during the 2008 elections often continue to live in the same communities in which they committed the crimes, sometimes next door to their victims.

– Human Rights Watch, 2011

After a three-day workshop, participants are given the chance for more one-on-one counselling if they wish then referred when there is need. Tree of Life works closely with other organisations providing medical treatment and support to survivors of torture. The organisation also follows-up with all participants within three months. Many participants even go on to become facilitators themselves – exponentially continuing the process within communities – following comprehensive training by Tree of Life.

A research study in  2012 concluded that the survivors felt, “that that the process had helped them… and had changed in the way that they felt about their torture.” One hundred and fifty nine participants were evaluated both prior to and after the workshop.. The participants  reported large effect size decreases in symptomatology, dropping  below the examinations threshold for psychological “caseness”, meaning they returned to psychological health. Overall, there was a significant improvement in their psychological well-being and community connectedness evidenced in the research.

Eugenia attributes this to the method of story-telling and group therapy within the community setting itself. “An environment can be toxic, but community healing can itself sustain the intervention.”

Tessa MollBy Tessa, Communications Officer at the IRCT. The NSA project is supported by the European Commission.

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Tackling torture in Nigeria

Although a global problem, torture takes shape in different ways in different contexts. Tackling it is also a local challenge, with human rights defenders asking, how does torture happen here?


Godwin Ugbor is an assistant programme officer and a trained psychologist at PRAWA, a Nigerian torture rehabilitation centre.

PRAWA, or Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, is a Nigerian rehabilitation and advocacy organisation and member of the IRCT. They have developed a methodology and series of programmes to prevent torture from happening in the first place, one that is nearly so obvious and simple.

In Nigeria, torture happens in prisons. It happens when people come in contact with police and prison authorities. It happens through the horrific and inhumane conditions of prisons.

There is a vast problem of crime in Nigeria, says Godwin Ugbor, a psychologist at PRAWA based in their Enugu headquarters. This is mostly related to dire poverty and hunger. While the country itself is rich from oil – one of the largest oil producers in the world – this wealth has not been distributed widely. It’s the 49th most unequal country, meaning any wealth is only held by a few.

“There is just so much hunger,” Godwin says. The result of that poverty and inequality, he explains, is rampant crime.

Furthermore, the high rate of crime in Nigeria means there is increased pressure on police services to function well and arrest perpetrators – but they suffer from the same poverty and lack of proper funding and training as the rest of the country.

“Because they don’t have the skills, they resort to torture,” he says.

So, one of PRAWA’s approaches to preventing torture – keep people out of the judicial system. Although people are sometimes implicated and tortured for crimes they never committed, the best method of prevention is to ensure that the young don’t become involved in criminal activity. Additionally, they work with the police and justice system apparatuses to bring about a human rights ethic to their work. And for those in prison, PRAWA provides psychological rehabilitation during their sentences and through the transition to public life. If most torture occurs in prisons and police lock-ups, then PRAWA rehabilitates prisoners.


Godwin has only been a psychologist for a year and a half, but he’s jumped into this work quickly, almost ‘overwhelmingly’, he says. It’s never-ending work, with prisoners and other clients calling at all hours.

“Your personal life is lost.”

Godwin started working with prisoners during an internship, one of four he had during his studies to become a psychologist.

“The system is so flawed and the conditions in prison so terrible, you develop a great deal of sympathy. It is a large group of people that really need help.”

Terrible may be an understatement. “Say they built a prison for 100, maybe 400 people will be living there. It’s extremely overcrowded. A cell for five, may have 20 people. There are bad sanitary conditions. Not good personnel working there. And really horrible food.”

Godwin says for those living under these conditions – often in long sentences or remaining there for months or years after they should be released due to flawed judicial processes – can develop chronic mental illnesses. Many prisons now have asylum cells for the mentally ill. He gets calls from them sometimes as late as 10pm, desperate for help and someone to talk to.


However, Godwin’s work has taken a turn recently to focus more on prevention – ensuring that the youth of Nigeria don’t get caught up in crime and risk arrest, becoming entangled with the judicial system and thus tortured.

The Illegal Migration Awareness Project (IMAP) trains youth and peer educators on the issues of illegal migration, a particularly relevant issue in Nigeria, Godwin says.

“Many youth want to leave the country and live without violence,” he says. But the impact of illegal migration can bring dire consequences. Many try to migrate across the desert, some dying during the journey. Others steal money, purchasing fake visas and passports and can be caught by officials. Those who make it abroad may have to resort to crime and theft to make ends meet.”

The education to peer leaders includes understanding alternatives to violence – training youth on how to handle certain situations without resorting to violence and aggression. Finally, career guidance programmes on vocational training and entrepreneurship assist youth in earning money, building a career, attending university and supporting themselves rather than turning to crime and theft.

“When I was in university, I would make shirts, shirts like this,” Godwin says while tugging at the fabric of his blue button-down. “That meant I was able to make enough money to support myself and attend school.”

It is methods like PRAWA’s that demonstrate the multi-faceted problem of torture – how problems of poverty increase one’s vulnerability to torture. And stopping torture means tackling it from all sides.

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Live from Yaounde: “We are all links in a chain”

Editor’s Note: Tessa writes from the IRCT’s Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar taking place in Yaounde, Cameroon.

As we’ve mentioned before, work in nongovernmental organisations (NGO – another acronym we use with ease within this little world) can use a particular language and methods that don’t really reflect to the outside world their true meaning and impact. We speak of meetings and projects with an air of great importance, but often struggle to explain why? Why is a meeting, of all things, so important and why do we focus so much on them?

This has been one of the goals of this blog – to shed some light underneath the veil of NGO-ese and the NGO methods to explain clearly, what is the impact of our work.

One the IRCT’s projects, Non-State Actors (NSA) is one such project riddled with this problem of communicating why meetings are so important.

I am writing right now from one of these meetings. I’m in Cameroon at the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Seminar, co-hosted by the IRCT and our member Trauma Centre Cameroon (TCC). This is my first time to attend one of these meetings, and I firstly feel so privileged to be here and meet so many people within the torture rehabilitation movement; but I also feel like I’m only now beginning to understand the impact of these seminars and meetings.

This seminar has brought together 31 representatives – psychologists, counsellors, directors of centres, and social workers – from torture rehabilitation centres from all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are people here from Chad, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of course, our gracious hosts and ridiculously hard-working staff of TCC, among others.

The title of this five-day seminar is “Learning from each other.” Our goal in being here is to do just that – learn from each other’s respective experiences in rehabilitating torture survivors, gaining access to justice and preventing torture from happening in the first place.

But our first task was simply to make sure we were all OK. Working for a world without torture in sub-Saharan Africa can be a phenomenally difficult task, as one can imagine from the media. Torture here is undeniably prevalent, whether during military uprisings, former dictatorships, ongoing torture from police officers, or in post-conflict settings. And working for the rehabilitation of torture survivors can be both personally taxing for the individual and intimidating, as we have seen from the threats to human rights defenders around the world.

So, in bringing these 31 individuals together, we tried to address these issues. Presenters from various centres explained their strategies for safety as human rights defenders. Fidelis Mudimu, from Counselling Services Unit (CSU) in Zimbabwe, was among three staff members arbitrarily arrested and detained. He spoke about strategies to assess risks. For example, the greater impact of a centre’s work – bringing forth more perpetrators to account for their crimes, documenting that torture has taken place, empowering victims through rehabilitation – can of course increase the risks that human rights defenders face because they challenge the impunity of perpetrators. Knowing the impact of one’s work can keep that defender aware of when they might provoke a threat.

Taiga Wanyanja, coordinator of Mateso – Mwatikho Torture Survivors Organization in Kenya, spoke about ways in which human rights defenders can mitigate against risks. Keep abreast of not only the context in which one is working, but how it changes. Is there political unrest or upcoming elections, such as the situation in Kenya in 2008 that resulted in many incidents of torture? Make sure the office itself is safe – in a well-lit area and not isolated and easily attacked.

But human rights defenders need to be mentally safe in addition to physically safe. When working in the fight against torture, it is both understandable and a considerable risk that human rights defenders may become traumatised, burned-out or facing other mental health challenges because of the nature of their work. Secondary trauma – trauma that comes from hearing and witnessing the stories of torture and violence all day, everyday – is a problem among those in human rights work, perhaps particularly in anti-torture organisations.

So, back to meetings. What is the purposing of bringing forth all these people from all over the continent to learn these things? Because, as Fidelis said, “We are a chain. And we are only as strong as our weakest link.” It is critically important for the safety – both physical and mental safety – that everyone learns from each other. This is learning from both successes and failures, knowing what works and what doesn’t, in fighting torture within each country, context and community.

Tessa MollTessa is Communications Officer at the IRCT. The regional meeting, part of the NSA project, was funded by the European Commission.

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Smiling again after fifteen years of torture

The story of Charline is one of nineteen stories collected by Grace Kagoyire and Annemiek Richters. The collection will be published in 2013 in a book under the title “Stories about death and rebirth: Life experiences of Rwandan female genocide survivors”; first in Kinyarwanda for distribution within Rwanda and subsequently in English. The English version will be supplemented by short chapters with analysis of the various themes that feature in the stories. A prepublication of a second story can be found on This website gives more information about the program of sociotherapy that hosted the story project.

Through the 16 Days, we have often commented on the unceasing work of activists, women’s human rights defenders, and community leaders in terms of their bravery and leadership. But what we also would like to emphasize is that these are not the only roles in which women exhibit bravery. The act of coming forward, testifying, providing these stories that we have shared through the last two weeks, and healing – coming forth for rehabilitation and reconnection with others can in fact be the bravest act for women, who often must fight deep personal and social shame as victims of violence, particularly sexual violence.

With that in mind, we would like to share the story of Charline, who was a victim of violence and sexual torture during the genocide in Rwanda. After years of ongoing gender violence and suffering, Charline joined a sociotherapy group, where she felt a change come over her whole self. Read her story of bravery, perseverance and the radical act of healing.


For fifteen years I was tortured by the man who raped me during the genocide, and then forced me to be his wife and continued to violate me. It felt like prison. After I separated from him, my wits came back to me. Before, I was always depressed, living in fear and grief. I always had headaches and nightmares. Now I have peace in my heart.

I am Charline. I was born in 1976 in the Nyarugunga sector in Kicukiro District. My parents were farmers. I lived with them up to April 1994. We were neither rich nor poor. I was born in a family of nine children, four boys and five girls. Five siblings and both my parents died during the genocide. Four of us escaped. I did not get a chance to marry a man I loved, because I was taken by force in 1994 by a neighbour who raped and married me. I live with the three children I conceived with this man.

The genocide mayhem spread everywhere. When it began, my whole family left our house in order to look for a place to hide. My sister-in-law and I went to hide at the home of our Hutu neighbour, who was a member of a Pentecostal church and was known as a reborn Christian. We spent two nights there.

On the third day, we went to a nearby primary school, thinking that it would be a safe place. We spent two days there while the war violence increased. Men who were with us advised us to look for another place to hide because things were getting worse. Since we had nowhere else to go, we took refuge in a nearby swamp where, after four days, a club of Interahamwe (1) found us hiding there.

One of those Interahamwe took me to his parents’ house. He lied to me, saying that he was going to hide me. I spent the night in that house and started to trust him. After two days, however, he began to rape me. He told me that the genocide would continue and that I should become his wife. I refused sexual intercourse with him. I continued begging him to leave me alone, wanting to go back to the swamp. He terrorised me and told me that if I would go back, he would kill me. I was afraid. The situation outside was bad. I stayed with him because I had no choice.

It was very hard to be raped and survive. No one supported me during the genocide. A man who should have helped me violated me instead.

During the fifteen years that I lived with this rapist, he terrorised me. I could not speak with him about the way my family was killed or about the death of my siblings. At each period of commemoration, I went to bed and cried until the end of the period. What was most painful is that when he found me crying he liked to tell me, “It is of no importance that Tutsis were killed.” Throughout my whole life with him I was always afraid. I never felt happiness. Since the day he took me from the swamp, I expected him to kill me. During the memorial period (2) he insulted me, as if I had no right to cry.

It was not only him who discriminated me. Everyone stigmatized me. Survivors could not talk to me. One survivor told me uwawe akuvira utamwikoreye (a dear one bleeds on you even when you are not carrying him/her). This means that my suffering was visible through the sadness on my face and it also was saddening those who observed me. Hutus used to tell my perpetrator that it was his own fault that he lived in poverty, because he married a Tutsi woman who was not able to cultivate.

Even though my sister told me to leave the rapist, I did not do it because I did not want to become a burden to anyone. On the other side, the family of this man also disliked me. As people stigmatised me, I was afraid of attending the survivors meetings because I also stigmatised myself. I felt as though I was in jail.

In 2009, this man started to behave even worse to me because I refused to sell a plot of land that had belonged to my parents. After this he said that because we were very poor, he was going to marry a rich woman. The situation was aggravated by the death of one of our four children. In 2010 the child fell sick and was hospitalised. The man refused to pay the hospital fees. During the week I spent in the hospital, he did not come to visit me. After the death of my child, it was my sister who paid the hospital. Coming home, when it was time to bury the dead body of my son, his father did not want him to be buried in what he considered to be ‘his’ plot of land, while in reality I owned half of it. He wanted to sell the whole plot in order to marry a rich woman. He told me that if I would bury the child in his land, he would kill me just like another man from our neighbourhood who had killed his wife. After I refused to bury the child in the ruins of my parents’ house, I separated from this man. My sister started to rent a house for me.

Throughout this whole period, I suffered from psychological problems. I was living in isolation, always crying. I would say that I was like a brainless person (3). A time came where I felt hate towards myself and towards everything else. I stopped going to church. I was depressed, living in fear and grief. I had always headaches and nightmares. I experienced ihahamuka (4), especially during the commemoration period. My life during this period was just crying. I was always falling ill in April. I could spend three whole days in tears. I was always quiet. I only went to commemorate once, in 2006, when we buried the remains of my brother who I loved so much, and who died at the last minute of the genocide.

Even though I was suffering, I did not go to the hospital. I was always at home. I regained my wits after my separation from that man and after I started to join other women and collaborate with them. I was no longer in that man’s prison. The separation somehow reduced the sadness and other problems I had. I had my rights back, the ones I had been deprived of for 15 years. Before, I was not even allowed to benefit from survivor supports. I was told that I was not a survivor. Now separated, I am supported like other vulnerable survivors. Today I have mutual health insurance from FARG (5), and I am on the list for direct support. I did not benefit from any counselling because I was not informed about which organisations provided counselling.

Through the grace of God, one woman who was my neighbour came to me. This woman, who later became a friend of mine, had completed fifteen weeks of sociotherapy (6). Because she had stayed near me while I was going through difficult times, I became open to her. She would advise me when I had problems. She became like my mother. I told her everything because she listened to me. After speaking about all my sorrows my heart was released. The deep thoughts I had about my life reduced. Before I spoke to her, I was always thinking about the rape I experienced and living in loneliness.

In 2011, I was invited by another female neighbour to join sociotherapy. Even though I accepted her invitation I could not see any interest in going to the meeting place every week. During the first four weeks I was wondering why I would go there all the way just for crying. Once, one of our facilitators explained to us the importance of crying. I learned that when you cry, you feel your heart being released. After understanding the significance of crying, I continued to participate. After four weeks I started to like sociotherapy. Another thing that motivated me was the game we played all together. That game showed us how a person can live in isolation, and how she can get out of it. After this game, which helped me so much, I decided not to miss any sociotherapy session. When my neighbour first invited me, I had expected to be supported through income generating activities. But I was not disappointed after realizing that my expectations were different from the aim of sociotherapy. I realised that the discussions we had within the group were important to me.

Before joining sociotherapy, I was always thinking about myself. I was always angry, and I was full of grudges. I also felt that I wanted to live alone. Surprisingly, while I was following sociotherapy, I felt changes in my whole body. The anger, thinking deeply about myself, all these symptoms disappeared. The loneliness has gone. I am no longer crying whenever as I was doing before. Another problem which has gone is the hate towards Hutus. During the fifteen years that I lived with the rapist, I had built a kind of hatred in my heart because of his wickedness towards me. The discussions we had in sociotherapy changed me. They taught me to live peacefully with others. I learned that if people sinned against me, I have to forgive them. This lesson brought peace in my heart. Being angry and bearing this hatred were gradually killing me while they, the sinners, were sleeping. I felt that I have to forgive my enemy, because forgiving brings peace in a broken heart. Since I graduated from sociotherapy, I committed myself to do whatever I can in order to live peacefully with others in the future. And then, I have a dream of having a house. After getting a house, I will work, and then develop myself further.

Although I am appreciative of sociotherapy, I do not know whether my family’s slaughterers are still alive. They were in prison; but they were released after they confessed. They confessed in prison, and later also in Gacaca (7). That is how we learnt about the death of our mother. They told that they killed my mother when she went to fetch drinking water and then threw stones at her until she died. After they confessed, I did not see them again. I did not testify against the rapist, afraid of being called a mad woman by the public. Because although my heart was full of grief and tears, neighbours knew that I was his wife. Gacaca is almost over by now. Those who looted our properties and those who destroyed our house paid our brother back. But the rapist is still walking around freely. What could I do?

Before I finish my story of change, I would advise other women who have been taken by force by a rapist to leave him if they experienced problems similar to mine. I liked that sociotherapy brought me together with other women and that it allowed me to trust myself and others again. Before I joined, I was like a small animal. When someone tried to do anything bad to me, I was reproducing this bad thing twice in return. I have changed, now, and I love other people. I had forgotten to smile like others, but, I am now a changed person and I am looking towards the future.

1. A Hutu paramilitary organisation
2. Each year in April the genocide is remembered nationwide through a range of events
3. Charline is refering to brainlessness due to a congenital disorder
4. A Kinyarwanda concept for a local form of somatic panic attacks
5. National fund for the assistance of genocide survivors
6. See for information about sociotherapy in Rwanda:
7. Gacaca refers to community courts that have been the centerpiece of Rwanda’s justice and reconciliation programme

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