Archive for category Voices
It has been nearly a week since a devastating earthquake ripped through Nepal, leaving a trail of death and destruction. With a death toll in the thousands and more casualties to come, the impoverished kingdom is struggling to provide shelter and relief to the survivors. Among the rubble is IRCT member centre, Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT) that explains how Nepal’s need for help extends far beyond the immediate aid efforts.
“We all are safe at CVICT, but we are still feeling scared and only stay at open places,” writes CVICT’s Jamuna Poudyal in an email after letting us know that all staff at the torture rehabilitation centre are safe.
Based in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, Ms Poudyal and her colleagues witnessed how the 7.8-magnitude earthquake – Nepal’s worst in 80 years – levelled historical monuments and whole buildings in just a matter of few moments.
“Many people lost their life when their houses collapsed,” says Ms Poudyal. “People in the Kathmandu Valley still feel that their life is in danger because of the many aftershocks.”
According to the UN, more than eight million people in Nepal have been affected by the earthquake and some 70,000 houses have been destroyed.
Shailendra Guragain, also from CVICT, explains how priorities have suddenly changed at the centre: “Torture victims are not the first priority this week. People in jail and custody living without roof and without medicine are also not a priority now. Wounded people from the disaster is our current top priority.”
But as the world is concentrating on reaching out to as many people as possible and providing necessities such as shelter, food, medicine and clothes to the survivors, Ms Poudyal makes a point of highlighting the urgent need for psychological assistance to the people who have witnessed death and destruction on a scale that most of us cannot fathom.
“The government of Nepal and most of the aid organisations present in Nepal are focusing on relief packages, including medical and food. But people are suffering from psychological problems as well,” explains Poudyal.
“There is a huge need for psychological first aid to the people.”
Today is of great importance to women around the world. Since 1975, 8 March has been the official International Women’s Day, giving us a chance to remember women’s past and current struggles and celebrate their achievements.
Women’s rights are at the core of human rights. Whether it is to do with women’s lack of education or political participation, wage inequality or gender based violence, these are all human rights issues that are high on the agenda.
Sadly, another pressing issue is torture of and sexual violence against women and girls.
Torture is a global endemic that destroys the lives of millions of people. Every day and in all corners of the world, women are being subjected to torture and other forms of abuse, often for no other reason than being a woman.
Some of the most prominent people in the fight against torture are women. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we look at four inspirational women who have seen or experienced the horrors of torture as an advocate, a caregiver and a victim.
The advocate: Inge Genefke
Inge Genefke is a prize-winning campaigner and medical doctor who has devoted her career specifically to the treatment and rehabilitation of victims of torture. As one of the pioneers of the anti-torture movement, she began her career in this field in 1973 when Amnesty International started a campaign to diagnose and heal torture victims in Chile.
Inge Genefke started as co-founder of the Danish Medical Group of Amnesty International in 1974. At that time, no knowledge existed about the destructive influence of torture on the victim’s physical and psychological health. The work of Genefke’s group resulted in the establishment of more medical groups the world over.
In 1982, Genefke established the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) in Denmark and three years later the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims was founded as the global umbrella organisation for torture rehabilitation centres.
Now 77 years old, Inge Genefke still campaigns and makes the news when perpetrators make it to Denmark on official visits.
The caregiver: Yadira Narvaez
During her medicine studies in Ecuador in the late 1980s, Yadira Narvaez worked at the medical department of a male prison. The experience became one of the most transformative events in her life. Seeing first-hand the lack of respect for human rights in prisons made Dr Narvaez realise that she needed to do something to try to protect prisoners and to assist torture survivors.
Determined to give torture victims in prison access to rehabilitation services, she went on to also work in the treatment of female detainees at another penal institution.
In 1997, Dr Narvaez helped found the Foundation for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (PRIVA). PRIVA focuses on the prevention and eradication of torture in Ecuador and the care of torture victims and their families.
Today, Dr Narvaez continues to be a strong voice in the anti-torture movement in Ecuador, despite the personal risks involved.
“The security situation for forensic doctors in Ecuador is concerning, especially for those who document cases of torture, but people have to raise their voices to speak about what is happening in this country”, said Dr Narvaez. “As an independent professional, I am also a voice for the torture victims and, hopefully, can contribute to ending impunity for those who torture”.
The powerful victim: Dilma Rousseff
Late last year, an emotional Brazilian president presented a 2000-page report by the National Truth Commission. The report, which was the result of almost three years of investigation into human rights abuses during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military rule, contains harrowing details of torture carried out by the dictatorship.
Detailing serious human rights violations such as beatings, electric shocks and sexual violations, the report brought back Dilma Rousseff’s memories of being tortured.
As a student in the 1960s and 70s, she was part of a Marxist guerrilla group, opposing the government. In 1970, aged 22, she was arrested and held in prison for almost 3 years. There, she was subjected to torture, including electric shocks to her breasts, feet and ears.
Of the thousands of people believed to have been tortured during the dictatorship, Dilma Rousseff is one of the most prominent torture victims. After her release, she successfully rebuilt her life. She gave birth to her daughter in 1976, studied economics, entered politics in the 1980s, and was sworn in as Brazil’s first female president in 2010.
When she unveiled the Truth Commission report, she broke down in tears saying ‘new generations deserve truths.’
“The work of this commission increases the possibility for Brazil to have a fully democratic future, free of authoritarian threats.”
The unknown victim: Illuminée Munyabugingo
Over the course of 100 days, more than 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda for being part of a different ethnic community. Behind the numbers, people lost loved ones, their homes, and their lives to the hands of the military, the police, neighbours, and even friends.
More than 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide, the effects are still being felt across the country. Those who perhaps suffered the most are women, many of whom are unknown victims of sexual violence and torture.
Illuminée Munyabugingo was 34 years old when the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis happened in Rwanda. At the time, she was part of a family with 16 children. The genocide took her husband, two of her children and 13 of her siblings.
“During the genocide I lost my relatives as others lost theirs, I became a widow like other women. But what destroyed my heart in particular was having been raped in front of my children. It deprived me of my dignity and my value. Every time I think about the rape I can still smell the odour of the sweat of my rapists.”
Today, Illuminée shares her story in the hope of helping countless other women who like her suffered atrocities for being a woman.
“I advise other women who experienced rape to build good relationships with people who live around them and to be courageous in whatever they do. I encourage them to talk about their problems to people close to them, because that will help them to recover. These women have to respect themselves instead of being taken over by their problems. They have to fight against being colonised by the consequences of their bad experiences. For those who are less experienced, I advise them to approach those who are more qualified and learn from them.”
There are so many incredible and strong women in the human rights movement. Who would you like to celebrate, honour or remember?
Recently, the IRCT and two of its Danish member centres spoke with Copenhagen-based monthly newspaper The Murmur about their work with torture victims in Denmark.
Torture is something that most of us assume only affects those in developing nations, where civil wars still rage, governments are heavily corrupt and poverty plagues the masses. But while it is more prevalent in these nations, Amnesty International found evidence of torture in 79 countries, all of which had ratified the UN Convention Against Torture.
The IRCT is a leading organisation that helps rehabilitate these individuals, with 144 rehabilitation centres providing holistic treatment to torture victims in 76 countries.
Asylum seekers arriving in Denmark often bring with them scars from their encounters with torturers. In Copenhagen, the Oasis rehabilitation centre has just 15 staff members tending to approximately 130 victims, mostly hailing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Somalia. Its sister organisation, Rehabiliteringscenter for Torturofre (RCT) in Jutland, treats many people from the Balkans, Chechnya, Syria, and the Post-Soviet Republics.
Both organisations treat the victims using a range of services and personnel, including social workers, psychologists, physical therapists and psychiatrists.
“We treat many civilians who have been victims of, or have witnessed organised violence against others, either during armed conflicts or under terror regimes, but we also treat perpetrators, as many from the Balkans were forced into military service against their will,” explains Mikkel Auning-Hansen, an RCT psychologist.
“Chechen refugees are damaged in many ways. Some were hunted, interrogated or tortured by paramilitary groups. Most of them have family members missing, hiding away from home or hunted for their political views. Some still feel that they are being hunted in Denmark.”
Ruth Lauge, the Director of Oasis, says soldiers are often the perpetrators. “We’ve treated a number of people who were kidnapped by the Taliban. For example, young children who were beaten and forced to put on suicide vests and being psychologically prepared to die, before they escaped,” she explains, adding that many victims have been living in Denmark for years, even decades, before they seek treatment.
“Many people come from being on the run and they just want a normal and safe life, with a home, family and work – just like anyone else,” Auning-Hansen says.
“Most cope for a limited time, but eventually, stress at work, problems in the family, loss of job or other unforeseen stresses tip the load and that’s when people reach out for help.”
Read the full article in the latest issue of The Murmur or click on this link.
Marking this year’s Human Rights Day, we cast a light on psychosocial support during legal proceedings — a critical yet neglected area within the fight against impunity and rehabilitation itself.
For many victims, seeing the perpetrator brought to justice and receiving compensation for the harm suffered is an essential step in their rehabilitation. However, seeking justice can often be a traumatising experience for a survivor of torture, or seen as a mere waste of time. Appropriate psychosocial support for torture victims in their pursuit of justice and reparation can change that.
In the days leading up to 10 December, four survivors of torture will share their stories in the pursuit of justice. They will reveal their fears and expectations as they challenged the perpetrators in court. They will also reveal how psychosocial support has helped them through the process, regardless of the final ruling.
In our fourth and final survivor story, we meet Catherine from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Catherine thought she could depend on the police to investigate the rape of her daughter in March 2014. Instead, Catherine was beaten, threatened and witnessed the arrest of her husband as punishment for her complaints. The rapist was, as it transpired, a policeman himself. Yet psychosocial support helped her overcome her initial dissuasion and she decided to seek justice.
However, Catherine’s experience with the police derailed her intentions to prosecute. The reprisals, which is commonly a dissuasive factor preventing torture victims pursuing justice, halted the case. As a result, the accused police officer was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
The security concerns Catherine faced were not the only factors dissuading her. Her husband spent two months in prison and lost his job as a result. These traumatic factors made it harder for Catherine to mount a case again. Coupled with the fears of re-traumatisation, Catherine no longer has faith in the police. Frustration with the justice system and fear of facing the perpetrator are reported as two common factors dissuading torture victims from seeking justice.
Catherine expected compensation from the perpetrator of her daughter’s rape and a criminal conviction for the rapist, common expectations motivating torture victims to pursue justice.
Due to the lack of security, neither of these outcomes were achieved. Yet the psychosocial support offered by SAVE CONGO, an IRCT member in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), gave Catherine the strength to go through the trial in the first instance and to come to terms with the trauma she, her daughter and her husband face following their torture.
“I took comfort in the support of psychologists from SAVE CONGO,” says Catherine. “I’m not satisfied at the moment because I have not received any compensation from the perpetrator.
“As an impoverished torture survivor, the cost of private medical care and trial are prohibitive factors which could have stopped me seeking rehabilitation and justice,” Catherine explains, echoing that one of the main reasons torture survivors are dissuaded from going to court is the financial burden it places upon them.
“With SAVE CONGO I’ve been treated by medical doctors, psychologists have visited me and my family to help me overcome my experience and to prepare me for court, and I have been able to participate at a group therapy session at their rehabilitation centre,” Catherine explains.
“I’m grateful for their support, especially as they have limited resources to treat victims of torture.”
On 10 December, the IRCT will publish its latest report: “In pursuit of justice: The importance of psychosocial support for torture victims participating in legal proceedings” which will be available on the IRCT website.
“The government needs to stop rape as a form of torture in the Congo”: IRCT member Freedom from Torture speaks out
In our latest blog we hear from Kolbassia Houssaou, coordinator of Freedom from Torture’s Survivors Speak OUT! Network – a group of torture survivors who draw on their experience of torture to influence decision-makers and raise public awareness of the challenges facing survivors.
Kolbassia talks about the challenges survivors face, and their role in the publication of Freedom from Torture’s latest report into rape and torture in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Torture is intended to silence its victims so it is therefore vital that people like me and the rest of the Survivors Speak OUT! Network at Freedom from Torture, have their voices heard. It is this that will ensure we are no longer seen as stigmatised victims but are instead recognised as having a vital role in finding durable solutions to end this practice.
The Survivor’s Speak OUT network is proud to add its voice in the international call for change in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over twenty years armed conflict has fuelled sexual violence against women and a widespread culture of impunity for the perpetrators.
Although there is war in the eastern part of the country, it would be wrong to say that sexual violence in the DRC is limited to the war zone. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are happening even where there is “peace” and those suffering have, until now, been unjustly overlooked.
In fact most of the women featured in the report were based in Kinshasa, far away from the conflict zones, where sexual violence was used predominately as a form of torture in detention centres, not the battlefield.
By publishing this report, we hope to dispel the myth that rape is solely a by-product of war zones but instead to show that in fact there are increasing levels of persecutory rape among women who challenge the government in the DRC. Many of the women who feature in this report were arrested as a result of their political involvement or support for government opposition or their affiliation with women’s rights groups.
But regardless of where it is committed, the impact of rape and other forms of sexual violence are the same. Women across the DRC continue to suffer. The absence of facilities means they have nowhere to turn for advice, counselling or any kind of support.
Right now the infrastructure in place is failing to help these women and a distinct lack of implementation and insufficient resources mean that well-meaning initiatives are not bringing about practical change. The DRC’s adoption of the 2006 law against sexual violence and the promulgation of the law criminalising torture in 2011, while welcome, are simply not enough. The government needs to do much more to tackle these crimes.
The sexual violence documented in the report is based on doctor’s examinations of women raped and violated in the DRC. These acts constitute torture and must be considered as such.
If these crimes are to be prevented the perpetrators must be brought to justice, the judiciary must be strengthened, survivors must be fully supported, and the population must be educated about sexual violence.
We cannot just raise awareness of the victim’s rights: there must also be legal enforcement to support this.
All the members of the Survivors Speak OUT! Network hope this report will shine a light on the suffering of women in the DRC and bring about change.
We hope the DRC government will take measures to support and protect women throughout the country. We hope the government will improve the conditions of detention centres and allow regular visits by international monitoring bodies. We hope the UN will help end the conflict in the east of the country which gives the DRC government an excuse to hide behind.
We welcome the UK’s leadership of the initiative to stop sexual violence in conflict and hope this report proves how vital it is that in the DRC this effort is expanded beyond the conflict zone and throughout the whole country.
There is no quick fix to the issues women face in the DRC but this report shows the alternative – a country where women continue to suffer sexual torture in silence, without access to rehabilitation, legal recourse, and where abusers continue to act without consequence.