Archive for category Women/Girls/Gender

Torture and torment in Libya

Five and a half years on from the ousting of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the country remains in an unstable state, facing the threat of IS and political infighting. Gaddafi was killed in February 2011 and on this year’s anniversary of his death, interim president Abdul Jalil insisted his government had, “opened our arms to all Libyans, whether they supported the revolution or not”. Acknowledging this message of inclusion, let’s not forget the many people with links to Gaddafi who were targeted in the aftermath of the dictator’s death. One of these people is HH who was tortured by the police.

HH was just 18 when Gaddafi died and her family was one of many to be persecuted because of their connection to his regime. The fact that they also belonged to a minority ethnic group made their situation even more dangerous. Immediately after Gaddafi’s death HH and her family were threatened and harassed by the new authorities who wanted them to leave the country.


Libyans take to the streets in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death (Courtesy of Mojomogwal via Flickr creative commons licence)

Her father was captured in 2014 and not released until 2016; she believes he was tortured during this time, though he never spoke about it. Soon after his release he was murdered on the street. After her father was taken away, HH was also arrested by the police and taken to prison. Over the course of a month, she was interrogated, sexually assaulted and beaten. Her head was shaved and she received death threats constantly. She was also forced to witness other family members being beaten.

Sadly, her story is far from unique. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Libya released in February 2016, found that killings and torture are being committed with impunity by “a multitude of actors – both state and non-state”.

HH was released a month later and knew she needed to leave the country if she was to survive. Along with a close relative she made her way to Croatia, but the trauma of what she had experienced made day to day life impossible. HH was referred to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb by the Red Cross.

When she arrived at the centre she was suffering from depression, insomnia, nightmares and a loss of appetite. She also struggled to form relationships with people as she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She had physical injuries as a result of the sexual assault but like many victims of sexual violence, refused to speak about what she had experienced.

RCT Zagreb provided social, medical, psychiatric and psychological support to both HH and her relative – also a victim of torture. The centre found accommodation for both of them and staff worked hard to establish trust so they could start the treatment and help HH integrate in Croatia. She was enrolled in a language course and received help to search for a job.

Through her therapy she began to deal with her grief at losing her family and the promising future she once had in Libya, where she was an ambitious student. A year and a half later and thanks to the work of the RCT Zagreb staff life had become more manageable for HH. She left Croatia in 2016, hoping to find a better future in Germany.

While HH escaped the violence and left her life in Libya behind, an article in The Guardian suggests that many people are losing hope in the country. In the article, which was written around the time of the five-year-anniversary, one student who supported the revolution said, “Some people say they want to go back to the time of Gaddafi. I don’t. Where I want to go is out, out of the country.”


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Why International Day of Action for Women’s Health matters

Since 1987, 28 May has marked International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Today is an opportunity to remind governments and the general public alike that women’s health matters. Many female victims of torture struggle with lifelong physical and mental health problems as a result of their experiences and the type of torture inflicted on them because of their gender. We share the story of NB, a survivor of sexual torture from the Central African Republic, to show that the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the human rights of women and girls, including their sexual and reproductive rights is always worth fighting for.

In March 2013 the Central African Republic (CAR) was in turmoil. The Séléka, an alliance of rebel militia factions had overthrown the government and were starting to target the Christian population, murdering people and ransacking and destroying their houses.


At the time, NB was happily married with four children but after a run in with rebels that were renting a house from her husband, her family suddenly found themselves as targets. They fled their village but NB decided to return to their house to get their identification documents before they left the country for good.

She was captured by Séléka rebels looking for her husband. They beat and repeatedly raped her for several hours. Then they ransacked the house, before leaving her in a state of shock. She eventually made her way to her parents’ house and then joined her husband and children and they fled to Cameroon.

NB is one of the many female victims of sexual violence during the CAR conflict, a time when disorder reigned and rape was used as a weapon. In late 2013 Amnesty International researchers reported that they had spoken to many women in the capital Bangui, who reported having been raped by Seleka soldiers. Most of these women and girls did not want to be interviewed for fear of being identified or stigmatised.

In Cameroon NB tried to make a life for her family, despite receiving no medical or psychological care after her ordeal. Eventually other CAR refugees told her and her family about the Trauma Centre in Cameroon (TCC), a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture. They were assessed and received psychological services, including individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy.

Even with the much-needed support they got from TCC, NB and her husband struggled to keep their relationship going. Things became even harder when she was diagnosed with HIV, contracted when she was raped. In many cases in countries, such as the CAR and DRC Congo, HIV-positive rape victims are dying because they cannot afford antiretroviral medication.

NB is one of the lucky ones, as she continues to get treatment from TCC. She and her husband are still together and the family is part of an income-generating scheme. As a result can pay their rent, take care of basic needs and their children can go to school. Without it they would struggle to survive.

NB’s story shows there are still many places in the world where basic health services are not available or inaccessible, often affecting women and children the most. The psychological effects of the trauma that sexual violence causes are ignored or gender inequalities make it more difficult for women to access medication for diseases like HIV. Sexual torture affects victims’ health and identity, as well as their relationships with family and friends.

International Day of Action on Women’s Health is a day to remember women like NB. Her story shows that survivors of sexual torture need support to rebuild their lives and that women’s mental and physical health should always be safeguarded.

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International Women’s Day: Four strong women in the fight against torture and ill-treatment

Today marks 41 years since the UN began celebrating women’s achievements on 8 March. To celebrate International Women’s Day and to honour these achievements we highlight four strong women who – in their own way – have fought human rights violations such as torture, sexual violence and other forms of ill treatment.

The advocate: Helen Bamber, Founder of the Helen Bamber Foundation

The late Helen Bamber worked tirelessly in the human rights field for more than 60 years, helping thousands of torture survivors worldwide. Starting out in the former German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen after World War II, she later became an early member of Amnesty International.

Helen Bamber (Courtesy of TEDxEastEnd via Flickr Creative Commons)

Courtesy of TEDxEastEnd via Flickr Creative Commons

In 1985 she established the UK based torture rehabilitation centre Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture – now known as Freedom from Torture. Twenty years later she founded the Helen Bamber Foundation, which is a human rights charity that provides therapeutic care, medical consultation, legal protection and practical support to survivors of human rights violations.

Named European Woman of Achievement in 1993, Helen Bamber was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1997 and in the same year also received a lifetime Human Rights Achievement award for her work. She passed away in 2014.

The caregiver: Uju Agomoh, Founder of Prisoners Rehabilitation And Welfare Action

Uju Agomoh

Uju Agomoh

Dr. Uju Agomoh is the founder and Executive Director of Prisoners’ Rehabilitation And Welfare Action (PRAWA) — a Nigerian NGO working on security, justice and development with initiatives in several African countries. She is a board member of several associations and committees and has served as Federal Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria (NHRC). She was also the Special Rapporteur on Police, Prisons and Centers of Detention of Nigeria from 2001 to 2008.

As the Executive Director of Nigerian NGO PRAWA, Dr. Uju Agomoh’s work includes training, assessment, documentation and provision of support services to prisoners, ex-prisoners, torture victims and their families. She has undertaken over 1,000 prison assessment visits to over 100 prisons in Nigeria in addition to prison visits in South Africa, Gambia and Rwanda. Her work has facilitated the training of over 5,000 prison officers in good prison practice and international human rights standards in Ghana and Nigeria and she established the first victim-offender mediation scheme in Ghana, Gambia and Nigeria.

Not surprisingly, she has become one of Africa’s most prominent experts on a range of issues in the human rights and anti-torture field. She has spoken out against the poor conditions in African prisons and police violence just as she has advocated for prison reforms, access to justice, rehabilitation and social development of prisoners.

Waris Dirie, Supermodel and Founder of the Desert Flower Foundation

Courtesy of 4WardEver Campaign UK via Flickr Creative Commons

Waris Dirie (Courtesy of 4WardEver Campaign UK via Flickr Creative Commons)

50-year-old Somalian supermodel and human rights activist Waris Dirie was only five when she underwent the inhumane procedure that is female circumcision, more accurately known as female genital mutilation (FGM). Unlike many girls who die from haemorrhaging, shock, infection or tetanu after FGM, Waris Dirie survived. But she was in extreme pain and continues to suffer from the aftereffects.

At 13 she ran away from her village when she learned that her father had arranged to have her marry a man in his 60s. She ended up in London where she was spotted by a photographer and became a successful model, fronting campaigns for some of the world’s biggest fashion houses.

Finding it difficult to embrace the success of her modelling career while knowing that thousands of girls undergo FGM every day, Waris Dirie set out to raise awareness about the practice that she calls “torture” against young girls. She became the UN Goodwill Ambassador in the fight against female genital mutilation and in 2002 founded the organisation now known as the Desert Flower Foundation, which supports victims of FGM directly with healthcare and medical treatment. The foundation opened a medical centre in Berlin in 2014, which is expected to be the first of several centres to offer FGM victims reconstructive surgery.

The anonymous victim: BC

Eighteen-year-old BC grew up in the Rukum District of Western Nepal. She was just one when her father died and three when her mother remarried and left her with her grandparents.

(Courtesy of simpleinsomnia, used via Flickr creative commons license).

(Courtesy of simpleinsomnia, used via Flickr creative commons license).

BC’s grandparents arranged her marriage to a boy from the same village when she was 15. Immediately after the wedding she was subjected to violence from both her husband and in-laws. After six months of marriage she fled to the capital city Kathmandu to live with her mother, but was forced to return. Upon her return she was arrested and detained despite the police not having a proper arrest warrant.

She was later brought to a hotel room and raped by the officer investigating the case. BC did not file a complaint as she was afraid she would be detained again. She became pregnant as a result and had an abortion in secret. Living in terror, she told no one what had happened, suffered in silence and felt increasingly more hopeless.

It was not until a local NGO referred her to the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal (TPO Nepal) for rehabilitation that she received the treatment she so desperately needed. At the time she suffered from dizziness, palpitations, headaches, restlessness and was very weak physically. She blamed herself for what had happened, had trouble sleeping and contemplated suicide.

TPO Nepal gave her post abortion medical care and treatment for other physical problems. She also received regular counselling and legal support from the centre’s legal officer. Her physical and mental state have gradually improved and she no longer contemplates suicide.

She filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) about the police with the support of the centre’s legal officer. This complaint is now pending in the NHRC.

There are many incredible and strong women in the human rights movement. Who would you like to celebrate, honour or remember?


Last year we also focused on strong women who have played an important role in the anti-torture movement. Click here to read the blog.

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From Cameroon to Pakistan – Empowering female victims of torture and rape

Every day and across the globe, women and girls are tortured and ill-treated. For some, rape is part of their ordeal and their rehabilitation path is often solitary, while governments, communities and families struggle to respond to their needs. With the support of a generous donor, 16 IRCT rehabilitation centres in 14 countries are helping thousands of these women and girls to take control of their lives through a range of activities.

Can design and sewing workshops contribute to the rehabilitation and empowerment of female victims of torture and sexual violence? If you ask two torture rehabilitation centres in Cameroon and Pakistan, the answer is yes.

For the past year, the centres have organised self-help workshops and activities with focus on how to generate income aimed at women who have been subjected to various human rights violations. The idea is to empower them to become economically independent and take control of their lives – something that also has a positive effect on their self-esteem.

The training and support provided by the programmes in Cameroon and Pakistan have proven very popular. Last year, more than 1,600 women and girls participated in an array of activities that fit with the needs of their community, including IT training, music lessons, beautician courses and small-business management.

(Courtesy of David Stanley used via Flickr creative commons license)

Women and girls are still among the most vulnerable in society (Courtesy of David Stanley used via Flickr creative commons license)

The two centres are not the only IRCT members to run these types of events. Across the world, another 14 rehabilitation centres have implemented similar projects.

Centres in India, Iraq, Lebanon and South Africa have organised workshops led by doctors and social workers to discuss prevention and the consequences of sexual violence on women’s health, while a centre in Sierra Leone is practicing healing ceremonies to alleviate the traumatic memories of the victims and promote peace and reconciliation within the community.

As a survivor who is part of the program in Iraq, explained: “When I arrived at the centre I felt that my family and I were drowning in the sea. The centre has been like a ship that has led us to the beach where we could start a new life.”

At another centre, a woman described how she “was completely demoralised and overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts” when she came to the centre. “I thought my life was worthless after facing the stigma of having been raped twice. However, the workers at the centre helped me get my life back,” she told.

Women and girls’ empowerment is crucial to creating better and prosperous societies, but gender equality is far from a reality in many places. Women’s rights continue to be neglected with the United Nations estimating that as many as 35% of women worldwide have experienced some form of violence.

Empowerment is widely considered a very effective approach to treat and support victims of violence. Whether it is training activities and seminars to help women become economically independent or treatment and healing to help them recover from their trauma, there is a great need to support female victims of torture and ill-treatment. With so many women worldwide having experienced some form of violence, this response must equal the size of this global problem.

So far the 16 IRCT members have treated more than 3,000 women and 1,200 children subjected to torture and sexual violence. We are still to see how many small business owners or beauticians the events and seminars have fostered, but for many in Cameroon and Pakistan things are looking brighter.

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Four women in the fight against torture

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

Courtesy of the IRCT

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

Yadira Narvaez (1)

Courtesy of the IRCT

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

Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff. (Courtesy of Blog do Planalto, used via Flickr creative commons licence).

(Courtesy of Blog do Planalto, via Flickr Creative Commons)

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

Picture courtesy Yildiz Arslan, from Visavis (Denmark)

Courtesy Yildiz Arslan, from Visavis (Denmark)

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?

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“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.

fftlogoTorture 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.

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.

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.

To read more about the DRC report from Freedom from Torture, 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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Google on torture: the world is still divided

A poster promoting the UN Women ad campaign investigating sexism on Google (image supplied by UN Women)

A poster promoting the UN Women ad campaign investigating sexism on Google (image supplied by UN Women)

Inspired by the brilliant but appalling UN Women ad campaign we’ve decided to find out what Google, or its infamous algorithm, says about torture.

Type “torture is…” or “torture should…” and the results, calculated after a few milliseconds, are abysmal yet unsurprising – the world is still divided. “Torture is justified” and “torture should be legal” are followed by “torture is wrong” and “torture should be banned.” Fortunately, “torture is ineffective” comes right before “torture is good”.

What does the algorithm tell us about specific methods of torture? Believe it or not, “waterboarding is baptizing terrorists with freedom”. Absurdities aside, the two top results, again, were predictable: “waterboarding isn’t torture” comes right before “waterboarding is torture.”

We know very well that data on torture is difficult to get, and few polls measure the public opinion toward torture. Although Google’s autocomplete isn’t a perfect picture of the reality it scarily hints to it.

In an article published earlier this year about sympathies towards torture in the United States, Amy Zegart writes:

“Americans are significantly more pro-torture now than during the Bush years. In 2007, 27 percent of Americans surveyed in a Rasmussen poll said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the war against terrorism. In an August 2012 YouGov national poll I commissioned, 41 percent said they approved of torture, a gain of 14 points.”

The poll results are not too distant from the algorithm’s result. One negative result followed one positive shows that public opinion is highly polarised. As explained by Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian, Google’s autocomplete feature anticipates what you’re looking for, based on what other people have searched for in the past.

She also explains that, “autocomplete suggestions differ according to variables such as region and time, but there tends to be a degree of consistency across results.” Try it out. Then let us know what’s like in your part of the world.

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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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V-Day: Highlighting the torture of women and girls

An estimated 11,000 Syrians are fleeing each day, joining the more than 700,000 that have left since the conflict began almost two years ago. In the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, IRCT’s member centres are actively responding to the growing and urgent need for torture rehabilitation services.

Those needing assistance are the women and girls who have been tortured, raped or faced other forms of sexual violence – human rights violations that the International Rescue Committee calls a “disturbing and significant feature” of this on-going conflict.

In order to highlight their plight and the broader global issue of sexual violence and torture, today the IRCT will join other organisations and a wide range of supporters in Copenhagen to mark V-Day, a global event to end all forms of violence against women. Join us either in Copenhagen or at a local event to bring attention to the needs of the thousands of women and girls who have survived torture.

Read about the event in Copenhagen

Join the event on Facebook

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