Archive for category Women/Girls/Gender

Four women in the fight against torture

Today marks 42 years since the UN began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March. To honour women’s achievements we have spoken with four inspirational women who were recently elected to the Executive Committee of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. They represent four different regions of the world, but they all share a strong commitment to the fight against torture. Here they tell us how they got to where they are now and what it is like to work with torture victims.

Sana Hamzeh, Clinical Advisor at Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Lebanon

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

SH: I have been working in the field of rehabilitation since 1986. I was one of the three founding members of Restart, which was first established in 1996 in Tripoli and then later in Beirut in 2007. I have been able to gain international expertise in the documentation of torture according to the Istanbul Protocol and 23 of the cases that I have psychologically documented have been referred to the court, with the collaboration of lawyers. In December 2016, I was elected Vice President of the IRCT, which provides a valuable opportunity to spread our vision of the fight against torture through prevention, accountability and reparation.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector?

SH: My journey through rehabilitation, with an emphasis on torture survivors, was not clearly outlined in the initial stages of my professional career. However, as the turbulent political situation in Lebanon and its neighboring countries continued, the need to treat this group of victims became clear. The intensity of torture victims’ suffering and the urgency of responding to their situation, propelled me towards this decision of responding actively to their mental health needs, including many women who were silenced for years and had been too afraid to speak out.

WWT: How many clients does your center approximately treat/support each year?

SH: Restart Center has treated approximately 4,116 clients in the past year. However, those numbers are subject to variation from one year to the next. In Restart’s first 20 years of establishment, we helped approximately 17,650 people.

WWT: Who are the clients and where do they come from?

SH: Restart simultaneously works on several projects targeting various clients, including people from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as well as other nationalities such as Egyptians, Sudanese, Bahraini and Ethiopians. Restart supports victims of torture, ill-treatment and war trauma; in particular, those in specific situations of vulnerability such as ex-detainees, secondary victims, refugees and asylum seekers, women victims of Gender-Based Violence etc.

In addition, we also provide community-based psychosocial support as well as animation and reconciliation activities to victims of war trauma including victims of torture, traumatised children, children of detained parents and young mothers.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

SH: Responding to survivors’ unique needs may be distressing at times, but the end result is more rewarding than words can describe. Eliciting smiles in individuals who had forgotten what a smile even means, or re-establishing the bonds that were once destroyed in a family, is the main reason why I look forward to the next day. For instance, a client of ours from Iraq initially approached our centre with severe Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder symptoms. Not only have his symptoms now subsided, but he is also currently working as a filmmaker, with one of his films soon to be shown in Cannes. My work reminds me that I have a second home and this feeling is mutual. One of our clients expressed her feelings towards her second home through the following words: “Restart Center is the only place where I feel human, well respected and able to express myself without feeling afraid.” These words offer hope and propel me to continue doing what I do despite all of the challenges that may arise in between.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

SH: Torture rehabilitation is a right that should be granted by the state, although that is seldom the case. Survivors’ memories of their traumatic experiences are painful; they seem inexorable and real. Accepting the past is vital, but demanding that the victim regains his or her dignity is equally important. The key is to provide rehabilitation services through which, victims can learn how to deal with their traumas and grief, and to look at a future that was previously inconceivable. Victims’ lives can be dramatically altered so that they can stand up once again. Through a holistic approach that addresses the physical, psychological, social and legal service needs of the torture survivors, life can be perceived as “life” once again.

Kathi Anderson, Executive Director of Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), San Diego, US

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

KA: I am the co-founder of SURVIVORS, which was established 20 years ago on February 27 this year. Prior to SURVIVORS, I resettled refugees for the International Rescue Committee, volunteered with Amnesty International and was in private practice caring for traumatised clients from many areas of the world.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector?

KA: I was encouraged by professional colleagues to start a torture treatment centre in San Diego where there was a growing need for specialised care for an increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees arriving from throughout the world.

WWT: How many clients does your centre approx. treat/support each year?

KA: Recently, we have expanded our projects so we are now working with more than 500 clients per year.

WWT: Who are the clients and where do they come from?

KA: The vast majority of our clients are asylum seekers and refugees. In the past five years, the top five countries of origin are Iraq, Somali, Mexico, Ethiopia and Iran. Over the past 20 years, the clients have come from more than 80 countries.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

KA: The work is incredibly rewarding. To be able to counter what the torturers have done to our clients by providing a safe haven for them to heal is extremely gratifying. I enjoy bearing witness to our clients’ improvements and being part of something bigger than me.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

KA: Torture survivors need to have access to specialised care so they can learn to trust again, rebuild their lives and have hope for their future and their children’s future.

Mariana Lagos, Psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Argentine Team of Psychosocial Work and Research (EATIP), Argentina

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

ML: I have been working in this field for 25 years. Even during my years at university I used to participate in a broad movement of young people that supported Madres de Plaza de Mayo.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector (torture rehabilitation)?

ML: Severe trauma left by the military dictatorship in Argentina shaped my generation as well as large sectors of the society, creating an unwavering commitment to Memory, Truth and Justice.
When I chose my career I was motivated by the desire to contribute professionally to alleviating human suffering. My parents, with their strong political, social and professional activities, were role models for me and my siblings when we grew up. The three of us have taken on that family legacy and we use our knowledge and effort to practice our profession while taking into consideration the needs of our people.
WWT: How many clients does your centre approx. treat/support each year?

ML: Throughout the history of EATIP, we have supported and assisted thousands of victims. Currently, we are carrying out several clinical and psychosocial assistance units that reach more than 100 people.

WWT: Who are EATIP’s clients and where do they come from?

ML: EATIP provides assistance to individuals and groups affected by torture and several other traumatic situations of social origin, where the state is responsible. At the beginning we assisted the families of people who had disappeared or survived the military dictatorship. Today, many of them are plaintiffs and witnesses in trials for crimes against humanity. Lately, we have also started providing assistance to people affected by new situations, such as relatives of young people killed by the security forces and relatives of victims and survivors of tragedies caused by state negligence and corruption. We also provide assistance to people affected by the criminalisation of poverty and social protest and the violation of rights of native peoples’ leaders, migrants, refugees and women victims of human trafficking.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

ML: It is a privilege, even if sometimes it is hard work. I feel that it is very rewarding to be able to provide support to people and their families during their extensive treatment processes. We become part of their story and share their accomplishments. At EATIP, we share with our clients and with groups of affected people the complex path to fighting impunity.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

ML: Because it is the right of groups and individuals affected, so that they can overcome both the consequences and losses they have suffered, while improving their lives. In order to reach out to people affected by torture, clinical and psychosocial approaches require specialised professionals and systems that victims can trust. In addition to the right to rehabilitation, achieving justice is essential both for individual and collective reparation.

Lela Tsiskarishvili, Psychologist at Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT), Georgia

WWT: How long have you worked with torture victims?

LT: I have been working with torture victims since 2000.

WWT: How did you end up in this sector?

LT: I was studying psychology, when, in 1998 one of my professors told me there was a part-time job opening at an NGO foundation. The salary was very low and they needed a Georgian- English interpreter, so it seemed like an ideal opportunity for a student like me. The organisation provided psychosocial rehabilitation services to Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia – those who were displaced as a result of the two wars in Georgia in the early 90s. In 2000, representatives of the IRCT came on a fact finding mission to Georgia as part of the IRCT’s regional strengthening programme with the idea to establish a torture rehabilitation centre in Georgia. My colleagues and representatives of the IRCT had several meetings, which led to the establishment of the GCRT. By then I was already a Masters student and was very happy when my colleagues offered me to move to GCRT together with them. I started as a documentarist and interpreter. From 2002 to 2004 I worked as a psychologist before I became the executive director of the organisation in 2005.

WWT: How many clients does your centre approx. treat/support each year?

LT: GCRT has regional offices in four regions of Georgia. GCRT provides rehabilitation services to people such as torture survivors, victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, war affected people, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. It serves up to 600 individuals per year. In case of sufficient funding for the work with torture survivors, GCRT provides assistance to 400 torture survivors and their family members per year.

WWT: Who are the clients and where do they come from?

LT: Our clients who are torture survivors are refugees, Internally Displaced Persons, persons tortured by the law enforcement agencies (mainly the penitentiary system and the police) and asylum seekers.

WWT: What does your work mean to you?

LT: I have been working at GCRT for most of my adult life. From a small family type organisation, GCRT has grown into the largest trauma service in Georgia and is one of the key actors in fighting inhumane and degrading treatment, policy reform and bringing the voices of affected persons to the general public and decision makers. I have been part of this journey all along. My work is an integral and one of the most central parts of my life and I take pride in the amazing work of my colleagues at GCRT.

WWT: Why is torture rehabilitation important?

LT: In our line of work we are not rescuers, we merely try to be there for people who have gone through the worse forms of interpersonal violence and who have been subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. We often spend sleepless nights thinking about how to help our clients transform their nightmares into dreams, how to replace the dominant experience of horror with love for their families and hope for the future. We ourselves are lost in this line of work. Working with those who have been affected by torture is a matter of passion and compassion – also about maintaining the delicate balance of being a therapist and a human rights activist. That is why, rather often, the process of rehabilitation of torture survivors is invisible among the human rights community. We work to touch upon the depths of human existence, yet most of the times, in order to protect our clients we cannot voice our opinion. However, the line of our work is ‘extremely loud and incredibly close’.

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

Capturing the stories of torture victims

“You have to listen to a lot of horrible stories and accounts. Do you have a space for processing them?” asked a psychotherapist I had been interviewing as part of my research. He was asking me how I was coping with the heavy topic I had to deal with during my fellowship. Like many of my interviewees, he is a psychotherapist who works with survivors of torture. On that day, he had been telling me about his experience with patients who had been subjected to sexual violence as a means of torture. During what had become a very normal day for me at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) office in Copenhagen, his emphatic question hit me so unexpectedly that I did not know what to say.

Barbara Giovanelli recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). In her blog post published on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, Barbara reflects upon her research projects aimed at capturing stories of sexual torture victims, working alongside IRCT member organisations.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Barbara Giovanelli)

I had joined the IRCT as an intern in February 2016. For five months, I contributed to the work of various IRCT teams with my knowledge on gender-based violence. I devised fact-sheets for advocacy activities, contributed to policy documents, participated in the evaluation of grant reports and completed background research for fundraising. As I found out more and more about the intersection of gender, sexual violence, and torture, my supervisors and I came up with a new project for the rest of my time in Copenhagen: for the last two months of my internship, I conducted a study on the specific psychosocial and health consequences that sexual methods of torture can cause. After a summer break, I re-joined the IRCT team for four more months through a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship in order to conclude the research and turn its outcomes into a final report.

Barbara Giovanelli

Barbara Giovanelli

I interviewed over 20 experts working in rehabilitation centers on sexual methods of torture. Although I used a comprehensive questions guide to structure the interviews, I did my best to let the experts talk freely about their first-hand experiences. Most of the interviewees were psychologists; others were doctors, social workers or lawyers. Many of them work in difficult circumstances, facing hostile political environments or critical financial situations. Once, for instance, an interview had to be postponed several times because my interviewee was called to an emergency intervention in the conflict-torn region of North Kivu in eastern Congo.

When I analysed all the rich information that I had gathered and looked for emerging themes and trends, I came to understand that there is one central and very sad aspect that accompanies almost all crimes of sexual torture: the fact that very often, victims do not report them.

While reporting a crime would be the first step, not only to claim justice, but also to allow the healing process to commence, feelings of shame and the fear of social stigmatisation deter survivors from disclosing their experience of abuse. In most societies, everything that has to do with sexuality is a very private issue and is strictly defined by social norms and taboos. “So they hide their stories and suffer in silence,” one of the experts explained.

Torture victim in Kenya.

Torture victim in Kenya.

To start breaking the silence and deconstructing the stigma around sexual torture, the outcome of my fellowship is a report that shares the knowledge of distinguished experts and draws conclusions on a phenomenon that is widely under-represented in research. The report also includes a series of case stories to illustrate the devastating consequences of sexual torture on the health and social life of survivors, and identifies particular needs resulting from the devastation.

At the conclusion of my fellowship with the IRCT, I now know the answer I would give that psychotherapist. It is not easy for anyone who has to deal with such crimes, but the work I did at my desk in Copenhagen is nothing compared to all the efforts undertaken by you, the front-line aid workers who may be reading this, and most of all by you, the survivors. I deeply admire your strength and courage. It was truly an honour for me to learn from you and help you share your experiences.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.

For more information please visit their website.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Ten years on and the Women of Atenco still seek justice

“When I got out of jail, I stayed in my house for a year,” says Claudia. “I cried, and I suffered so much. I had had plans for the future with my partner, but when I got out of jail, he left me. I felt like the whole world had turned its back on me because I was a rape victim. During that time, I began to drink a lot, and I started to go to a lot of bars. I did many things I didn’t normally do. And then I realised that the government had tied me up for a moment. They laid the first stone of my destruction. But even with all of this, I said to myself, ‘I am still Claudia! I am still Claudia! I was raped, but this does not take away my dignity.”

barbara

Bárbara Italia Méndez Moreno (Photograph courtesy of Daniel Berehulak)

These are the words of Claudia. She is one of the 45 women arrested by police in Mexico one morning in May 2006 at a market square where they sold flowers. Dozens were seriously injured, two people were killed and many of those arrested sexually assaulted. The women have never received justice for what they experienced and continue to fight the impunity of their perpetrators. They have become known around the world because of their fight for justice.

In September this year, a little over 10 years since the event, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in relation to their case. The Commission noticed the “existence of severe acts of physical and psychological violence, including diverse forms of sexual violence against the eleven women and rape in the case of seven women”.

This development is a milestone in the struggle of the Women of Atenco, as not a single person has been convicted of any crime related to the assaults. In 2013 the state partially admitted responsibility, but the Women of Atenco say it has failed to deliver justice as the federal forces involved in the assaults have never received sanctions.

In addition, after the events of 3 May the state initially prosecuted several of the women rather than the police officers involved. Five were imprisoned for a year or more, on charges such as blocking traffic. Achieving some sense of justice may go some way to helping the women overcome the trauma of their past. “I have not overcome it, not even a little. It is something that haunts me and you don’t survive. It stays with you,” says Maria Patricia Romero Hernández, one of the women, in a previous interview.

The IACHR had previously recommended that the state arrange full reparation for the victims, including providing them with medical and psychological treatment, continue its investigations effectively to “fully establish what happened, and to identify and punish the different grades of responsibility, from the material authors to other forms of responsibility”.

However, the Commission was not satisfied that the Mexican state followed its recommendations and has now stepped up its action by filing the application. A ruling made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would be binding, unlike the recommendations, and could create a judicial precedent that could prevent further sexual abuses by federal security forces.

The fact that the case is finally receiving the attention it deserves has not stopped the Women of Atenco from continuing to spread their message and two of them, Italia Mendez and Norma Jimenez, will be keynote speakers at the upcoming IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium in December in Mexico City. The women will speak in a session on survivor participation in research and treatment planning and will share their experiences.

“We are those who did not surrender to the misogyny of the state, and rejected the place that perpetrators assigned to us. They tried to take our identity, but we responded by shouting our name out loudly and reclaiming our right to be. We are breaking paradigms, taboos and raising awareness about the stigmatisation of survivors,” says Italia.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

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.

flickrcc_mojomogwal

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.”

 

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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.

CARCrisis_Flickr

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.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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?

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

“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.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment