Posts Tagged gender-based violence

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.


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One billion rising

1br-logo-web“One billion women on the planet will be raped or beaten in their lifetime,” it says on the V-Day website. But the organisers of this global event intend for one billion to rise up on 14 February to demand an end to violence against women.

And two of those will be Piv la Cour and Noura Bittar Søborg. And, they hope, hundreds more at the event they’re organising in Copenhagen. Held at the World Culture Center, Piv and Noura have also invited four women to speak about their different areas of expertise on gender-based violence, including one from the IRCT to speak about women, sexual violence and torture.

It was Eve Ensler’s call this year to have ”One Billion Rising” that inspired Piv and Noura to organise the event. Ensler, a playwrite and activist most famously known for writing “The Vagina Monologues”, has in the last decade dedicated herself to eradicating violence against women through public demonstrations, art, and dance and the V-Day annual event. Held every year on 14 Feburary — more well-known in her native U.S. as Valentine’s Day — V-Day is intended to bring about awareness of the problem of violence against women, which includes sexual violence and torture during wartime, domestic violence, date rape, or human trafficking.

The two organisers met at the Trampoline House, a cultural house for asylum seekers and Danes that focuses on issues of asylum in Denmark. When Piv saw a video of Ensler’s TEDTalk and read the One Billion Rising website, she immediately wanted to bring the event to Copenhagen.

“I emailed it to Noura, who I knew was pretty motivated for everything,” says Piv.

It’s too true. Noura is the kind of activist that runs out of breath as she speaks — either from excitement of the news or from rushing up the stairs to tell you. By the time Piv returned to the Trampoline House some weeks after that email, Noura had already gotten some plans in order.

“I was like, ‘Wow, we are really doing this now!’” Piv says.

But her reason for doing so, for speaking out on this issue and encouraging others in Denmark to do so, is simply, “Because we can.”

“Violence against women is not something all people can talk about. In Denmark, we are lucky that we live in this democracy where we can speak out about these issues. It’s our responsibility then to do something with this freedom. We have a good safe base to start these discussions.”

This is not the case in Noura’s home country. After two years of ongoing fighting, rape has become a “significant and disturbing” feature of the armed conflict in Syria. There are ongoing reports of women and girls attacked by armed men at checkpoints; women being sexually assaulted in front of their families; others being kidnapped, held in detention centres and subject to rape and other forms of sexual torture.

Rape is undoubtedly being used as a weapon of war and torture in Syria. It’s been cited as a primary factor for those deciding to flee Syria and seek refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the neighbouring countries that are taking in the majority of the more than 700,000 that have fled since the start of the conflict.

Noura came to Denmark just 16 months ago, not directly because of the conflict, but because of her recent marriage to a Dane. She had finished her bachelor’s degree in Syria, in political science, and has since started taking Danish classes, working at IRCT member centre Dignity in Copenhagen, and starting the search for a master’s programme to continue her education.

When she was at university in Syria, before the crisis began, Noura says she was attacked on the campus, but thankfully rescued by a friend. Surprisingly, her mother, who she describes as “a communist, an atheist”, blamed her for the attack.

“Women can’t report these things, because then they will be blamed,” she explains. “You live in a society that tells you that it’s your fault. You don’t believe that you can go to the police for help.” Noura attributes the inability to collect robust data on the number of rape victims from the Syrian conflict on this — the fear of being blamed, the shame and stigma with being a rape victim.

But in other countries, Noura says, women can speak. “We can say, ‘This is wrong. I have rights!’” she says. “I have more of a voice and more rights here in one year than I had for 22 years in Syria. That is sad.”

Both women say they feel that it’s their moral obligation to speak out — and to instil perhaps small moments of education and inspiration for greater change.

“We need to speak out for those who can’t,” says Piv. “And fight for what we have,” Noura adds.



Click to enlarge

V-Day One Billion Rising – Denmark

Where: VerdensKulturCentret

Nørre Alle 7

DK 2200 København N

When: 14 February, 19:00 – 21:00


• Tessa Moll from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

• Human-trafficking experts Selina Mård and Line Larsen from (upcoming website Talk Trafficking)


Click to enlarge

• Expert from LOKK (Landsorganisation af Kvindekrisecentre)

Music and Art:

• Helen Kholin will be showing her exhibition Love&Art

• DJ Norm D will be spinning records

• Elou Elan will be singing

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Smiling again after fifteen years of torture

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beyond survivors: A psychologist’s story


Brazilian psychologist and human rights activist Vera Vital Brasil knows from experience what she is talking about when she tells about her years of work with torture victims. Joining with other survivors of torture, Vera was among the founders of the anti-torture organisation Grupo Torturo Nunca Mais that, beginning in 1991, provided medical and psychological treatment for victims of torture.

As a student of the Faculty of Pharmacy, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in the late ’60s, Vera participated actively in the university student movement, a major focus of resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). Because of her activism, in December 1969, she was arrested and tortured on the premises of the notorious DOI-CODI, the Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna (in English: Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations) in Rio de Janeiro, which was the Brazilian intelligence and repression agency during the military government. After three months in prison, Vera left Rio and went into exile in Chile. Her exile lasted six years and upon her return to Brazil, in 1976, she was determined to change the course of her career to try to turn the wrongs that others done to her into something good.

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

While working as a chemistry teacher and studying Psychology, Vera participated in volunteer programmes aimed at securing human rights and health care to residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums. Years later, again as a volunteer, she worked to support people infected with HIV.

Volunteer work

This was only the beginning of a long story of work for the protection of human rights. In 1982, Vera joined other former political prisoners living in Rio de Janeiro in their reaction against the appointment to public office of people responsible for torture during the dictatorship. This initiative eventually led a group of former political prisoners, torture survivors and relatives of dead and missing people to found the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM/RJ, which in English stands for Never More Torture Group) in 1985. The group is a non-governmental organisation that was born with a mission to fight for human rights, including the clarification of the deaths and disappearances of political activists and remembrance of past abuses, and struggle against impunity, for justice and for the denunciation of torture and all forms of violence.

The GTNM/RJ was founded at a time when the memory of the deaths, disappearances and torture that occurred during the military dictatorship in Brazil was in danger of being forgotten: silence reigned. “Deeply painful experiences were being put in ‘the trunk of forgetfulness’ and the State had a policy of silence about these events,” says Vera Brasil. The fact that survivors of torture did not talk about their experiences due to feeling unsafe also contributed to the fact that many crimes were falling into oblivion. “Some patients blame themselves for what had happened to them. They thought, for example, that they had not been agile enough to escape the repression and attributed to their own mistakes the error of being arrested. But it was the State that had committed the crimes by killing, torturing, ‘disappearing’ the bodies of opponents and decimating the forces of opposition to the regime.”

In 1991, with funding from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the GTNM/RJ formed a clinical team to provide medical and psychological treatment and physical rehabilitation to victims of torture. Vera was part of the team from its creation up until this year.

Justice and redress

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

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

In July 1993, when street children and teenagers were murdered by police in Rio de Janeiro, in what became known as the Massacre of Candelaria, the GTNM/RJ team members realized that their area of work should be expanded. “We were taking care of those affected by the state violence that occurred during the dictatorship and realized that another segment of society was being affected by state violence during the transition to democracy” says Vera.

The poor: today’s victims

Vera says that there has been a change in the main target of state violence. “In Brazil, there is no longer political persecution as there was during the military regime. Today the poor are the biggest victims of state violence and, unfortunately, torture and mistreatment are both serious and widespread throughout the country.”

“Every day we witness examples of grotesque brutality, execution, torture, violence and abuse in Brazil. Often the police enter the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro shooting indiscriminately, supposedly in pursuit of drug traffickers. In a prison in the state of Espirito Santo, dozens of inmates were crammed into shipping containers where the temperature reached 50 degrees centigrade. In São Paulo, a young motorcycle courier was recently tortured to death by police and who then threw his body into a city street”, she adds.

“Historically, the violence committed by the state, including torture, does not receive media attention, unlike cases of family violence or violence committed by criminals, which always gains prime time coverage on television news,” she says. “The reason is that the main victims of state violence are poor. And the poor in Brazil are invisible. It is as if there was an attempt by political and economic elites of erasing the violence that occur in this sector of the society “, she says

Despite this situation, Vera highlights the efforts of some sectors of the government and thinks that Brazilian society has gradually advanced in protecting human rights. “But it’s amazing to note the discrepancy between sincere concern for human rights from certain parts of the state and disregard from other state actors.,” she says.

Bringing crimes to justice

For her, the best example of progress in this area is the Third National Program for Human Rights, which resulted from the mobilization of civil society and was launched in December last year by President Lula da Silva. According to Vera, despite controversial changes recently made to the program, it still represents a breakthrough in efforts to protect human rights in the country.

Vera is no longer working at GTNM/RJ, but her activism against state violence continues. She participates in a group of therapists who are working on the creation of a national public policy for the care of those affected by state violence, and also in the activities of an organization that works to record and bring to justice crimes committed by the state.

Her current militancy reflects her concerns that reparation to victims of torture and other forms of state violence that should be comprehensive and not limited to financial compensation. “We need to expand our collective knowledge about what happened, send those responsible to trial and create memory of what happened,” she urges.

In recent years, thousands of people who were persecuted by the military regime have received economic compensation from the Brazilian state. Vera fears that the economic compensation ends up having a perverse effect. “The economic compensation can make people shut up and silence their cry for justice.” The 64-year-old Vera wants to continue working to prevent such silencing occurs.

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Beyond survivors: A writer’s story


Philo Ikonya is a poet, author and journalist from Kenya

“I was a candidate in the [2008] elections for parliament. I ran because change has to come. I am also a human rights activist. I have appeared many times on TV debate shows, so I am quite well-known to the public. A top priority for me as an MP would be to provide opportunities for the youth. Lots of youths in Kenya are disenfranchised, poor and without hope after finishing their education.

Second, I would focus on improving our health system. Because the big violence here in Kenya is poverty.

My third priority would be women. We form 52% of this country’s population. But even trying to get into a position of leadership here is very difficult.

The arrest

In February 2009 I was in a small demonstration outside our parliament building. We were protesting that the government wasn’t doing anything about the food shortage. At some point a female policeman comes up to me and says: “You know I can arrest you?”. I said: “I know you can, but what have I done wrong? I am here to complain about the price of maize, and why can’t I?”

Anyway, I went to the other side of the street. Now there was only me and a young man. Suddenly the cops arrived in a small car. They got out, grabbed us and said: “Keep quiet!”.  One of them was a senior policeman. He said: “Look, you keep quiet, I know you.”

I replied “I’m just talking to people. I mean, why should…” Then he hit the young man who was with me and threw him to the ground. My first thought was “I gotta run away”. Then “but if I run away he will finish this guy – he is not a public figure like me”

He beat him with his fists and with a stick. Then he came over to me and pushed me towards the car. I fell; he pulled my arm and ripped my clothes. Cameras arrived; before long there were lots of cameras. Still, the damned fellow put his arm inside my dress and pinched my breasts.

We were both thrown into the car. I was in the backseat with my companion and another policeman. The senior guy was in the front seat. He said: “Now there are no cameras here.” Then he started hitting us. On the throat, on the chin, he really punched us both. We were screaming “Stop it! Why are you doing this?? Stop it!” I thought: “My God, he is going to kill us”. He was telling the policeman next to me to beat us, but he was paralysed with fear – he didn’t touch us.

“…until you are silent…”

The window was down, so I started yelling “They are going to kill us – help! help!“. He hit me again – he kept beating us all the way to the police station. He said “I will beat you until you can’t speak anymore, until you are silent and you are under…”

“This can’t be happening to me”, I thought. I told him: “I’ve never ever been hit by a man – stop it!” But he hit me again and I yelled: “Are you going to stop when you break my jaw? What do you want? What have we done?” …But he kept on hitting us, repeating “Now the cameras are not here…” I thought he was going to finish us between here and the cells – because that’s what he was really saying.

When we got to the police station my lip was swollen and my clothes were torn. He pulled out the young man and slapped him and dragged him upstairs. I was left there. Then some of his colleagues put me in a cell.

There are horrible things going on in the cells. Every few minutes they were throwing in someone else. The few women that came in were speechless because of previous torture or harassment. One was pregnant. She couldn’t talk because women police officers had tortured her upstairs – they had threatened to put pepper in her private parts, even when she told them she was pregnant. And they beat her badly.

In the evening, they took us to another police station. They drove very fast. Three minutes down the road the cop behind me said: “You are going to die and you are going to go to hell.”

  “I realised from the way they spoke that it was something they did every day to other people.”

I thought “no, they cannot do it”. And then “yes, they can do it – these things are happening in Kenya.” I realised from the way they spoke that it was something they did every day to other people. They spoke about death all the time. And they kept getting calls on their radios, always answering: “Yeah, we are very near the forest. We are taking them to the forest” and “When we get there, they will never talk again.” So I thought they were taking us somewhere else to see how much more information we had. And I thought: “What do you say when they are beating you for information but you don’t have the information they are after?”

When we got to the second police station I had no idea where we were. The station was totally deserted. I was locked up again, not knowing what was happening.

Going home

I was released sometime during the night. I found out later that IMLU had paid the bond. I don’t know how they got to know about my case. My friend Ann drove me home. I went to bed – I was in a daze, my head was zooming. My son Yusuf – he’s 13 – was sleeping. In the morning he came to my bed and was quiet. Ann had told him about my arrest. I had very dark bruises, which he saw. He was shocked. He said: “Why does it have to be you?”. In the following weeks he was very angry, traumatised.

He feels so helpless – angry at me that I put myself at risk. I tell him: “Look, I do it for you.” I try to tell him it’s not like he comes second and the country comes first. But he is very sharp – he tells me: “What really matters to you is the rest of the world, huh? And your country, not me. Where do you think I am in all this?” It is a very difficult balance.

Some time ago a friend said to me: “How can you keep on? You have a child!” Many people think like this. And it can be very painful, especially when your child is also protesting your engagement. But I tell them: “I’m in it because I have a child and my child will have children! If no one fights it, it may be my son who is picked up next time”. If all those who are afraid for their children’s safety actually did something, that would take us a long way.

I had been summoned to court at 8 am the morning after my arrest. At 3.30 the night before, I woke up and wrote the whole experience down. It was like my head was gonna burst. So many things happened so suddenly.

During the court hearings I had these very strong convulsions. All of a sudden it was as if my body needed to get rid of that had happened in the past two days. I felt like I was gonna throw up, I was gasping for air for a long time until I was able to compose myself.

After going to court I spent the whole day in the cells even though the bond had been paid. That’s because of the slow procedure, which gives many an opportunity to bribe their way out, just to get the bond papers signed. If you do not bribe, it takes much longer – even longer than it took me.

Weeks and months later

Then I was transferred to a hospital. They said I needed trauma counselling and had soft-tissue injuries. I was there for one and a half day. It was nowhere near enough. I was very affected, very traumatised. Later they would pick up the fact that my hand needed six months to heal.. much later… First I didn’t realise it, because I am very strong. But in the weeks and months after I was often teary. I didn’t like to see the colour blue because the police dress in blue. I still remember it and sometimes cry. I feel, you know, ‘why on earth…?

“I didn’t like to see the colour blue because the police dress in blue.”

When I woke up in the morning at the hospital I cried and cried and cried. All the time I thought there were policemen under the bed. I told them: “Look, I feel there is somebody under the bed, somebody dressed in blue, policemen.” And I felt so stupid afterwards. I am this person who goes on TV talking about human rights, a very strong woman, and there I am, sobbing away, claiming there are policemen under the bed!

How else has it affected me? It has made it more difficult for me to cope with all sorts of problems. And I have started becoming more cautious about what I can say. I HATE the feeling that I’ve begun to censor myself to some extent. I’m still outspoken. But I’m more cautious.

The first three nights I was out of Nairobi after my arrest I dreamt three consecutive nights of police arresting me. First, it was just the arrest. The third night it was many of us, activists, being arrested and put in one set of handcuffs. It was nightmarish. I woke up frozen, like: “My God, we’ve been arrested again, they are coming again in their blue uniforms.”

“A substantial part of you has gone.”

The thing about torture – and poverty – is that it steals a place in your mind that is meant for your development, your growth, your enjoyment. All that space is taken. It’s like you are imprisoning that space. If you are a writer, it’s your imagination. First you don’t realise it. But after some time you begin to realise it does matter. A substantial part of you has gone. There’s this gap in your creativity. You are struggling to find that space. Even just to sit down to read a book peacefully. You are reading, and then after 15 minutes you are thinking about that chap who was arrested – are they torturing him? Then your own arrest comes to play. After some time you have no space…

The future

Where would I like to be in 10 years’ time? Well, I really want recognition for my writing. I would love to look back at a series of writings that made sense to people; that tried to bring reason at a very dark time. Things that continue speaking to people in the world.

In a completely different political system I would like to have a strong political position. In this system I don’t even want to hear about the elections in 2012. I don’t believe in this representation by 222 people who hold the country at ransom. I would like to see myself as a powerful person within a different system – a powerful position, which would still allow me to exude moral courage.

And then, it is a dream to see a torture-free society. I can’t live without freedom. Giving up freedom is like giving up being. It is everything. That’s what I would like. So that my son can look back at my life and say: “It made sense!”

Kenya, June 2009
Philo Ikonya is a poet, author and journalist from Kenya. She blogs at


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Beyond survivors: women at the forefront to stop violence, stop torture

Yesterday marked the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, a global campaign to bring attention to the crimes of violence against women. The campaign begins every year on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, through to 10 December, UN Human Rights Day.

We at the IRCT have often raised the issue of torture against women, and we will do it again through the 16 Days of Activism campaign.

The women you will meet are more than simply victims.

These women are on the forefront of the fight against torture; they are the human rights defenders challenging the state in public protests and national advocacy. They are the activists sharing petitions and taking up the struggle to defend others. They are sharing their stories, standing forth and testifying against powerful state apparatuses. And they are being rehabilitated, joining other women in healing themselves and healing each other.

There are many ways to describe the bravery of these acts.

So, in the coming two weeks, we shall allow the women to describe it themselves. On, the floor is theirs. Please join us in this global challenge against gender violence and share these stories throughout the 16 Days.

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