Posts Tagged gender equality

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’.

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