Women at the frontline in the fight against torture

Today, on International Women’s Day (8 March), we wish to join the worldwide movement to honour women as human rights defenders. Women from all over the world, including at our 140+ member centres in over 70 countries, work at the frontline in the fight against torture. These women lobby national governments, head human rights inter-governmental bodies, work in rehabilitating torture survivors, and are often survivors of torture themselves.

At World Without Torture, we would like to honour these women by providing a platform for their stories today. Please share these stories to honour not only their work, but the hundreds of thousand of women human rights defenders worldwide.

What do we do with what others have done to us?

Brazilian psychologist and human rights activist Vera Vital Brasil knows from experience what she is talking about when she tells about her years of work with torture victims.

As a student at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in the late ’60s, Vera participated actively in the student movement, a major focus of resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship. Because of her activism, in 1969, she was arrested and tortured on the premises of the notorious DOI-CODI, the Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna in Rio de Janeiro. After three months in prison, Vera left Rio for exile in Chile. Her exile lasted six years and upon her return to Brazil, she was determined to try to turn the wrongs that others done to her into something good.

“What do we do with what others have done to us? Internalize this tormenting experience or fight to stop this happening again? I chose the latter,” she says about her involvement with victims of torture through clinical work.

In 1982, Vera joined other former political prisoners living in Rio de Janeiro against the appointment of people responsible for torture during the dictatorship. This initiative eventually led a group of former political prisoners, torture survivors and relatives of dead and missing people to found the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM/RJ, which in English stands for Never More Torture Group) in 1985, which, in 1991, started providing medical and psychological treatment and physical rehabilitation to victims of torture.

Throughout these years, her personal experience and dedication to other victims have convinced her that the trauma caused by torture can never be completely overcome but must be addressed through clinical treatment and proper redress.

“The damage caused by torture is accentuated if it is ignored, if there is no justice, or no redress. The fact that the state, which should guarantee and protect human life, is the agent of violence has a devastating effect on people’s psychological well-being. Our clinical practice is insufficient to cure this damage. But we can try to get people who have gone through this harrowing experience to feel better and give another meaning to this suffering, shifting it from a personal and private level to the collective and historical level, “she says.

Read Vera Brasil’s full story here.

Giving a voice to the victims

“You try to channel revenge through peaceful channels, you know, campaigning, publishing, providing legal consultation, providing legal aid, taking the person to court, accompanying the person throughout this process,” says Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla.

Dr. Seif El Dawla, founding member, psychiatrist, and human rights defender at Egyptian centre El Nadeem, was awarded the 2011 Alkarama Award for Human Rights Defenders.

For nearly two decades at the El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, she has worked with countless victims of torture. When the Egyptian clinic began in 1993, Seif El Dawla and the other founders wanted to provide psychological services to the survivors of torture and their families. They sought other like-minded organisations – medically-based NGOs that served the psycho-social needs of victims of violence – to model their new clinic. Soon they realised that focusing simply on the psychological rehabilitation neglected the social and political aspects that allowed the crimes to continue – the victims’ access to justice and seeking the prevention of torture.

“Many of the people who come don’t really want to have a psychological assessment,” she says. “I realised that those people aren’t really patients in the classic sense of patients. They have responded very normally to an extremely abnormal situation.”

El-Nadim not only had to treat the psychological consequences of torture, but provide their clients with access to medical doctors to treat the physical wounds. In addition, many survivors came to the clinic with a need to channel their anger, humiliation, and helplessness into bringing their perpetrators to justice, bringing the crimes to light.

When the image of Khaled Said’s face appeared in the newspapers, bruised and beaten, Seif El Dawla had seen it all before. Said’s image ignited change. The people of Egypt have become fed up with a broken system and a police force that tortures, carries out arbitrary arrests, and falsifies forensic reports, she says.

“Already before the 25th of January people had enough of this kind of violence. They had enough. And it’s not a coincidence that the first targets of the people when they revolted were the police stations, all over, because there isn’t a governor, there isn’t a city, where there isn’t a family who has lost somebody to a police station or who has a relative who was abused or humiliated in a police station. So, it was already boiling. Now, people are not willing to take it anymore.”

Read Dr. Seif El Dawla’s full story here. And, see the short film on the Khaled Said case, which features her in an interview.

A voice for the torture victims in Ecuador

During her medicine studies in the late eighties, Yadira Narvaez was unexpectedly transferred from a neurological clinic, where she worked as an intern, to the medical department of a male prison.

The unwanted transfer was a punishment for her habit of wearing trousers. “My superior said that if what I wanted was to look like a male, I should be as close as possible to men”, she remembers. The experience became one of the most transformative events in Forensic Doctor Yadira Narvaez’s life. “It was a striking experience: there I learned the difference between being alive and dead”.

While working at the medical department of that prison, where approximately 1,500 men served their sentences, she discovered the real meaning of the word torture. “By then, I really didn’t know what torture meant and what it could do to people”. Dr Narvaez‘s placement at the prison ended after 18 months but has led to decades of dedication to the treatment and protection of torture survivors and prisoners.

Two years after the end of the “punishment”, Dr Narvaez decided to go back to work in the same prison, this time, of her own free will. She went on to also work in the treatment of female detainees at another penal institution. Being a witness of the suffering caused by a lack of respect for human rights made Dr Narvaez realise that she needed to do something to try to protect prisoners and to assist torture survivors.

To address the problem on a national level, Dr Narvaez helped found the Foundation for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (in short PRIVA) in 1997. In addition to denouncing torture in Ecuador, PRIVA focuses on the prevention and eradication of torture and the care of torture victims and their families.

“Like Martin Luther King, I also have a dream: that one day in my country all individuals who, for any reason come into contact with the penal system have their rights respected, have the right to be heard and the right to justice,” says the 52-year old doctor. “And torture victims need access to rehabilitation services to recover at least part of the health lost due to arbitrary practices by state agents. In addition, torture survivors need to be assured that these violations will not continue so that they can go on to live without fear”.

Read Dr. Narvaez’s full story here.


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  1. [From the web] Women at the frontline in the fight against torture -worldwithouttorture.org « Human Rights Online Philippines
  2. Beyond survivors: women at the forefront to stop violence, stop torture « World Without Torture

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