Posts Tagged IRCT

Collaborative Models: Reflections on working with survivors of violence and torture

“When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.”

In her post on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, youth psychologist Gabriela Monroy offers readers a glimpse into one of the projects currently being implemented under the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program. Coalition members Covenant House International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) are working together to develop a comprehensive set of materials on issues related to trauma informed care. These materials will be used for training and as reference for healthcare workers and specialists to better understand the effects of trauma and how to approach traumatised youth.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Gabriela Monroy)

I am a psychologist at La Alianza, Covenant House International’s (CHI) safe house for trafficked and sexually exploited girls in Guatemala. I am also the CHI regional coordinator in Latin America for the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program on trauma-informed care, which is being carried out by the IRCT and CHI. I was invited to attend the 10th International Scientific Symposium organised by the IRCT in December 2016 in Mexico City. When I received the invitation, I very much looked forward to the opportunity to learn from survivors of torture and those who work to support them. I knew I had much to learn and much to share. After three days of listening to the presentations and experiences from different countries, I began to realise that in many countries across the globe like mine, “normal” is similar to a war zone where death, torture, rape, abuse and abandonment of children is the norm and life is a continuum of traumatic events. The exception is a moment of human and humane interaction– which is what we strive to accomplish at La Alianza.

(Gabriela Monroy, right, with one of her patients at La Alianza in Guatemala)

At La Alianza, young girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation find an environment that offers them the opportunity to finally be treated as human beings, in a dignified, respectful and non-violent way. For some of them, the violence in their lives has been so overwhelming that it can feel traumatic to be treated in such a humane fashion. Using a trauma informed care lens in my day-to-day work as a youth psychologist, I see, after some time of working with them, that the impact on their lives is visible. Society seems so surprised at the transformation that care, affection, and dignified treatment can produce. It is ironic because acting in a humane way should be the most common thing we do as humans, yet it still surprises us even more than the violence itself.

Every single presentation at the Symposium presented the testimonies and experiences of survivors on this continuum of violence and torture as examples of integrity and dignity. This simple reflection on my experience of this symposium hopefully will be a recognition and a homage to their courage and an expression of my respect for each one’s journey and all they have gone through.

When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.

Also, we need to realise that best practices for dealing with survivors of torture and violence need to be based in respect for their day-to-day experience and respect for the ways they have survived, and if we can recognise this then we may be able to transform the norm that violence has become into the exception. This is my hope. I am grateful to the Hilton Prize Coalition for giving me the opportunity to be a witness to such courage.

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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Collecting data to achieve justice for torture victims

“Working with survivors and families of victims of torture is not an easy task. Listening to survivors recount painful, dehumanising and degrading memories of torture in the hands of the government invokes a hunger and drive to keep fighting for the rights of the underserved.”

Hilda Nyatete from Kenyan rehabilitation centre IMLU 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, Hilda writes about the importance of comprehensive clinical documentation and the IRCT’s Data in the Fight against Impunity (DFI) project, which she believes can help victims in their pursuit of justice.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Hilda Nyatete)

My work at the Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) revolves around ensuring that victims of torture and their families receive psychological support both at the individual and group level. IMLU has been a member of the IRCT for many years, and has become the premier organisation supporting victims of torture in Kenya. It supports an average of 500 victims of torture annually.

One of the challenges my team constantly has to tackle is the victim’s fear, which often leads to a low level or a complete lack of cooperation when reporting cases of torture. This is due to intimidation by the perpetrators, who not only deny any accusations of wrongdoing but may also put forward fabricated charges against the victims, which piles onto their fear. The fear and intimidation have caused us to be very intentional in involving clients throughout the process of reporting, entering data about their case from intake, during service provision, and until the client is released from active medical support and counseling; that way, the clients understand the critical role their information plays in allowing them to achieve justice.

Participants from different organisations working on clinical documentation under the DFI project

With 25% of cases going to court, IMLU works with a network of professionals who provide critical documentation of torture and ill treatment in legal proceedings. These evaluations and subsequent documentation take place all over the country. The purpose of the medical and psychological evaluation is twofold: to provide an expert opinion on the degree to which findings correlate with the alleged victim’s allegation of torture, and to effectively communicate the clinician’s findings and interpretations to the judiciary or other appropriate authorities. It is key that clinical documentation is done diligently and in a clear and concise manner to ensure that justice is served.

To face the challenges of threats, intimidation, and a tedious documentation process, IMLU developed a database system which was officially launched in 2015. The system goes beyond data entry about the clients’ respective cases, enabling the staff to manage individual and group calendars and diaries; that way, those who work with clients but do not engage with data entry on a daily basis still find it useful. My work as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has revolved around continually engaging staff in this comprehensive clinical documentation, as well as supporting other organisations in the process, which ultimately serves to enable victims to achieve justice.

It remains paramount that organisations such as IMLU collect and document data on these human rights violations. During my Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City for the IRCT’s 10th International Scientific Symposium in December 2016. I met colleagues from various organisations who are also working at IRCT member centers and participating in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity Project, who are just beginning to establish their own database system. Sharing my experience of how the IMLU system has made our work easier while ensuring that clients are involved in documentation, was exciting and meaningful. Little did I think that the work we were doing at IMLU would be of such great impact to colleagues in the sector. Being a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has given me a boost of confidence and allowed me to learn a great deal not only in matters of clinical documentation but on leadership, networking, and quite a bit on humanitarian work. I am truly grateful to have been accorded this wonderful platform and opportunity to learn, grow, and to contribute to the common good.

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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Purge and persecution in Turkey

Last month, the Turkish government fired some 4,500 court clerks, librarians and computer experts considered “dangers to the state”. The move, which is part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on alleged coup sympathisers, takes the number of public servants who have been dismissed to around 125,000. Adding to this, more than 40,000 people have been arrested since last year’s failed coup, while reports of torture and ill treatment have become commonplace in a country where respect for human rights and freedom of speech has been put aside.

Among the people who have been arrested since the attempted coup is Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci who is the President of IRCT member centre Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT). Dr Fincanci was arrested in June 2016, along with two other prominent human rights defenders, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, for taking part in a solidarity campaign to defend the independence of the newspaper Ozgur Gundem – a paper that is often critical of the government and aligned with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

While international pressure helped secure their release 10 days after the arrest, the three human rights defenders are still facing charges under the country’s Anti Terror Law, pending an investigation into their alleged involvement in terrorist propaganda. If found guilty they could face up to 14 years in jail.

It is not difficult to see why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government consider Dr Fincanci a threat. A leading figure in the anti-torture movement, she was one of the contributors to the development of the United Nations reference standards on the investigation and documentation of torture (the Istanbul Protocol) and she has conducted endless forensic investigations to expose torture in Turkey as well as other countries. All of these are achievements not appreciated by the government.

Sebnem Korur Fincanci.

Now, with the government ramping up its crackdown, the number of cases of alleged torture and ill treatment in police detention has also increased. Speaking to a journalist from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one woman explained how she was taking care of 13 people after all the men in the family had been arrested. Some of them had been tortured while in detention with one documenting the police beatings in a statement:

“They beat me on the soles of my feet, on my stomach, then squeezed my testicles, saying they would castrate me,”

Another man told the journalist about the torture that his 66-year-old father had endured while in prison. This included having his toenails pulled out.

Despite international outcry and condemnation, Turkey continues to tighten its grip and those who provide rehabilitation services to torture victims or help them with the forensic documentation of their cases continue to be seen as “dangers to the state”.

Several HRFT staff targeted

Dr Fincanci is far from the only HRFT staff who has been targeted by the Turkish authorities because of her anti-torture work. Other colleagues have also been arrested or dismissed from their public duties and in 2015, HRFT itself was fined approximately 30.000 EUR in connection with its work to support torture victims from the anti-government protests.

One of the staff targeted by the authorities is Dr Serdar Küni who was arrested on 19 October last year for no apparent reason and has been detained in Şırnak Prison since then. His first court hearing took place on 13 March, but Dr Küni was not released. Instead he is still in custody, waiting for his next hearing to take place on 24 April.

As for Dr Fincanci, Önderoğlu and Nesin, their trial has been postponed twice already, but a new court date has been set for next week. At the last hearing, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT, Miriam Reventlow made it clear that there is strong international support for all the human rights defenders currently on trial: “The IRCT, as part of the global movement for the rehabilitation of torture victims, continues to stand with Dr Fincanci, her family and other colleagues in solidarity and support at this challenging time.”

Dr Fincanci herself is despondent about the situation in Turkey and her pending trial:

“It is really one of the most difficult times for Turkey in any way. Torture is now common in detention centres, and conditions in prisons worsen every day,” she says. “As for my trial, we can never be sure, because this is also a period of unpredictability. Nevertheless, we are starting to see convictions in similar cases, such as postponed imprisonment of one year and three months and fines of 6000 Turkish Lira.”

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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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One year on: Egyptian government shuts down country’s only rehabilitation centre for victims of torture

A year ago, we shared a story about how Egypt’s last remaining centre for the treatment and documentation of alleged torture victims was ordered to close by the Egyptian authorities. The reason given at the time was that the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture had ‘breached unspecified health ministry regulations’. Critics on the other hand labelled the order a crackdown on human rights organisations and defenders in the country.

Now El Nadeem has been closed after it allegedly violated terms of its licence. A few weeks ago, El Nadeem staff arrived at the centre to find that it had been sealed by police. According to the co-founder of the centre, Aida Seif el-Dawla, the building’s doorman was taken into police custody, but was later released.

Last year, when the centre was ordered to close, Aida Seif el-Dawla called the decision politically motivated. She said at the time that: “This is a political decision and it’s coming from the cabinet that represents all the actors that are keen on the survival of this regime, despite the oppression and the torture that the Egyptian people are living through on a daily basis.”

(Courtesy of Alisdare Hickson used via Flickr creative commons license)

(Courtesy of Alisdare Hickson used via Flickr creative commons license)

Not much has changed since then. Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office in June 2014, repression and shrinking of the public space has only increased, targeting the entire spectrum of human rights organisations, professional and labour associations, political activists, journalists and media.

In its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that authorities continued to effectively ban protests and that police had arrested scores of people in connection with protests, many preemptively. What is more, HRW noted that authorities had also ordered travel bans and asset freezes against prominent human rights organisations.

Despite the constitution forbidding torture and the abuse of detainees, the practice is widespread in Egyptian prisons. Reports of torture and ill-treatment and enforced disappearances in Egypt are frequent, with El Nadeem consistently recording high numbers of allegations of police torture. In late 2015 the centre and other civil society organisations announced they were able to document 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons.

Aida_Seif_Al_Dawla

Aida Seif el-Dawla

In the wake of El Nadeem’s closure, international rights organisations, including the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), of which El Nadeem is a member, have come out in support of the centre.

“El Nadeem provides crucial psychological support to torture victims and is a credible public voice when the Egyptian authorities try to silence the victims. We know from our members around the world that torture inflicts terrible damage to individuals, families and societies. El Nadeem performs a crucial societal function in promoting human rights and democracy and it is high time that all of us who believe in human rights and democracy take a close look at Egypt,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz who is the Secretary-General of the IRCT.

Whether the government will eventually provide an explanation as to why it closed the centre remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: as long as the El Nadeem remains closed, torture victims in dire need of help are not able to receive the treatment they need.

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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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Kenya: The dangers facing human rights defenders amid decades of torture and ill treatment

It was the oppressive regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi that led to the establishment of Mwatikho Torture Survivors’ Organization (MATESO) in 1995. As president, Moi was responsible for the torture, death and disappearance of thousands of people who were considered supporters of the opposition.

While many people were tortured in the notorious Nyayo House torture chambers in the heart of Nairobi, the president’s crackdown went far beyond the country’s capital. One of the places affected by the violence was the town of Bungoma near the Ugandan border.

“The international community realised there was a problem in Kenya and they came to the country through Amnesty International to look for victims of torture. They identified Bungoma as an area with many victims and that’s why MATESO was founded there,” explains Taiga Job Wanyanja, centre coordinator of MATESO.

The MATESO centre in Bungoma.

The MATESO centre in Bungoma. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu.

Taiga was one of the centre’s founders. He saw firsthand how people who had been subjected to unthinkable atrocities were in urgent need of help. At the time, torture victims in Kenya had nowhere to go to receive rehabilitation. There was a group of international doctors who came to the country to help rehabilitate the victims. This led to the foundation of MATESO.

“Back then we didn’t even know about rehabilitation so we started borrowing approaches from other countries on how to rehabilitate. Victims wanted medication, they wanted psychosocial support and counselling because of the kind of torture they had been through, which was horrific,” recalls Taiga.

According to those who survived, the regime used a repertoire of gruesome torture methods including electric wires, beatings, falanga and sexual abuse.

“People were victims of government perpetrators and other state agents who were trained by the police to carry out the crackdown. They used torture methods to suppress those not supporting Moi’s regime.”

Only a few years after Moi resigned in 2002, Bungoma saw the rise of a guerrilla militia group called Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The separatist group, which soon became very powerful, began to implement a parallel administration system and set up an unofficial taxation of local residents. The group was accused of killing more than 1,000 people, and of committing various atrocities including murder, torture and rape. In the course of 18 months, over 66,000 people were displaced because of SLDF.

Torture victim treated at MATESO. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

Torture victim treated at MATESO. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

“I think the government somehow relaxed and allowed this group to become a very serious force. It set up kangaroo courts, set up torture chambers, it initiated its own taxation system, carried out abductions and forced disappearances. In fact over 1,000 people were killed during that period,” says Taiga.

Along with other human rights defenders in the country, Taiga suddenly found himself as a target of the militia and as the situation deteriorated, the less safe he was. At this point, the government had finally deployed the military to crack down on SLDF, but it was using similar techniques as the group and began targeting citizens who were not part of SLDF. According to Taiga, the government was even using the same system of disappearances, torture and arrests as SLDF and when he and other human rights defenders voiced their concern about this, the military came after them as well.

It was clear that his life was at risk and he had no other choice than flee to Uganda, leaving behind his family.

“I had to leave my family behind in Kenya. I had five children and my wife who I left behind. They were also being threatened and had to move to another place.

“After a year I came back to find that the military had crushed the militia group and their illegal activities. The military had caused a lot of damage to the entire community of the western region of Kenya. More than one million people had been affected and the entire community of that region was suffering from PTSD.”

The everlasting scars from torture. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

The everlasting scars from torture. Photo: Natalia Jidovanu

Today, MATESO continues to treat victims of the former governments and SLDF with entire communities suffering from the effects of torture. Each year, MATESO staff, consisting of 15 full-time or part-time counsellors, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nurses and lawyers, provide services to 1,000 torture survivors. But while many of them are victims of past violations, MATESO also support victims of ongoing police brutality.

Taiga tells us about a recent episode that took place in a small village. The police beat up a group of people and raped the women, but despite the public outcry that followed, the perpetrators were not brought to justice. In fact, when the victims tried to report the attacks, they found themselves reporting to the perpetrating police officers. A stark reminder that impunity is still widespread in Kenya.

The high level of impunity is particularly evident to Taiga who continues to be a target for threats and acts of harassment. As a result, he has to take his precautions when addressing a human rights issue in public or simply try to avoid confronting the government over an issue to do with torture. Yet, he continues to treat torture victims, who, had it not been for him and MATESO, would not be able to access rehabilitation services.

“I am also a victim and I know that the healing process is a long process. Victims need a lot of help. They require a long-term process to heal in my experience. After some time and after intervention I have seen people recover and really appreciate the psychosocial support we have given them. We have many survivors who have told us we have made a difference in their life. Most people cannot afford the services they need so through our intervention they feel they are at ease with life now because they can get the care they need.”

MATESO is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). To find out more, please visit the MATESO website.

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Triumphing over adversity to deliver rehabilitation to those in need in Iraq

“When we succeeded, funders asked us to open other centres, as they saw the impact of what we were doing. It was the first time people were speaking about torture. The word torture had been forbidden, the previous government forbid people to talk about it.”

When Salah Ahmad founded a rehabilitation centre in the city of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq in 2005, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead to the establishment of a network of nine branches throughout Kurdistan-Iraq.

Since 2005, these centres have provided services to more than 20,000 men, women and children. It is a remarkable success, but has not been an easy journey for the organisation, which is now called the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights.

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Salah Ahmad With Kids in Chamchamal (Courtesy of Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights via Flickr creative commons licence)

Salah recalls that when the Kirkuk centre was founded in 2005, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people were still living in fear. “I had a patient who came to me and told me he needed my help, but said I had to promise not to write down anything. I asked why and he said, ‘Because I am afraid if they come back they will know everything about me.’”

Yet the Kirkuk centre went from strength to strength and funders like the German Government, EU and the UN recognised the need for more centres like it. All the centres have the same system in place and provide psychological, medical, legal and social support. Some have specific programmes to respond to the needs of torture victims in the area. One of these programmes is an inpatient clinic for women victims of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

The programme came about through the work the Jiyan Foundation is doing in the Khanke refugee camp near Dohuk in Northern Iraq, which is home to over 18,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of the women living in the camp have been liberated from ISIS and have had horrific experiences.

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(Courtesy of Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights via Flickr creative commons licence)

“They are in a very bad state. They lost everything, their life, their city, their health. These women have been sold, raped, every awful thing you can imagine. ISIS destroyed them as human beings,” Salah says. He realised they needed specialist help, having seen how many of the women were committing suicide, and that one two-hour session each week was not enough to help them.

The Jiyan Foundation started a centre 300 km away from the camp where the women could go for different periods of time and could bring their children with them. The recommended length of a visit is eight weeks and Salah says the intensive therapy has made a big difference in their lives.

“It is important to get them out of the camp, because there they only speak about their problems. We take them in small groups, because the cases are so complicated and difficult. Then they can get follow up treatment when they go back to the camp. This clinic is now more than a year old and we have helped more than 100 women this way.”

Yet just finding the money for transport to get the women to and from the camp is an ongoing challenge for the Jiyan Foundation team. The lack of infrastructure in general makes getting things done, and done quickly, difficult. Salah says, “You have to start from zero all the time. This makes the costs higher. The government cannot help because we have such a big financial problem. We have a large number of IDPs and refugees. We don’t have the capacity, it is too much for us.

“When we started the Kirkuk Centre there was no infrastructure. To build up the foundation in a country like Iraq is not easy. Sometimes you can need up to two months to get to speak with the authorities to get an agreement to get something done.”

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Delivering aid to IDPs who escaped the Sinjar region. (Courtesy of Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights via Flickr creative commons licence)

Despite all of this Salah says the Jiyan Foundation is going in the right direction, “In these 11 years we have succeeded in doing a good job in many ways and we support thousands of people.”

The Foundation is named after Jiyan, the Kurdish word for life and it is clear that the work that Salah and the 170 staff members working in the centres are doing, is bringing life and healing to Kurdistan.

 

Jiyan Foundation is a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. For more information visit their website www.jiyan-foundation.org or follow them on Facebook.

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Using art and learning to treat trauma in France

In France, IRCT member centre Parcours d’Exil uses a vast range of methods to treat their clients. Among these approaches are art therapy, language classes and cultural events, which can help accelerate torture survivors’ recovery. For one torture survivor art therapy proved the key to easing his fears and allowed him to deal with the horrific trauma of his past.

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Art therapy and music classes are just some of the many activities the centre runs (Copyright Parcours d’Exil)

In August 2015, Parcours d’Exil was contacted by a volunteer of Iranian descent working for the Red Cross, who had benefitted from one of the centre’s training programmes. She asked the centre to make an emergency appointment for an Iranian asylum seeker who had arrived in France two days before.

On the day of the consultation, asylum seeker N appeared to be in a state of fear, incapable of uttering a word, watchful of everything and everyone and crying all the time. He made it clear that he was afraid of the therapist and he showed signs of being afraid he was being watched and threatened.

As the consultations went on, N slowly started to communicate with the help of an Afghan translator, who the centre had chosen to avoid bringing back his memories of the Iranian “aggressor”. He managed to tell the therapist about the traumatic events he had endured.

Parcours d’Exil quickly realised that verbal communication would be complicated, and could hinder therapeutic cooperation as they brought back N’s impressions of the interrogation. Centre staff decided to introduce him to their art therapist. Art therapy, in this particular form, proved to be the real entry point, helping N to accept and engage in the broader therapeutic process at the centre.

In their first meeting, N and the art therapist found themselves sitting on rugs, drinking tea while listening to classical music.

It became clear that N patient presented a post-traumatic dissociative disorder. He complained of anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic nightmares (in which he found himself, for instance, in a bunker without any light), memory disorders and an inability to focus, which forced him to write down everything. He could not take the bus or metro for fear of not being able to exit it. He also complained of being unusually irritable, always fearing that the person he was speaking to would try to take control of him.

Like many other patients, N did not want any medication, having been exposed to “harmful” treatments in the past. Furthermore, he had been hospitalised in a psychiatric ward after two suicide attempts before being incarcerated. External elements exacerbated his symptoms, particularly when he learned of his mother’s hospitalisation back in Iran.

In order to familiarise him with Parcours d’Exil’s Health Centre, he was invited to attend French courses and music workshops that the centre organises, while continuing the art therapy. It soon became clear that participating in these classes, within the reassuring frame of the centre, had become a “necessity” for him, and his social behaviour changed dramatically.

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(Copyright Parcours d’Exil)

He never missed any of the cultural visits organised by the centre, and he was gradually able to socialise again and regain some confidence. He put himself forward to sing Persian songs during music classes, started to communicate in French during the French for Foreign Speakers sessions and decided to try to learn how to play the piano.

Like in many cases, one simple detail or situation can easily trigger bad memories. During a French language lesson, N was shown a picture of a bathtub. He immediately froze and was overcome with an immense sadness.

Although the nightmares were a constant reminder of his imprisonment and torture, the courses enabled him to recover the long-forgotten feeling that life could be seen through a positive lens. Along with psychotherapy, art therapy, music and French language lessons were key aspects of the positive outcome of his treatment, in terms of his quality of life and speed of recovery.

All the more so given the fact that his case was extremely complex, and such patients often take years to recover. On numerous occasions, N was able to talk about the improvements in his life, and how he behaved and felt about himself. It took less than six months for N to make this progress.

N’s story confirms the idea that Parcours d’Exil promotes: That the inclusion of artistic and creative activities is a powerful catalyst to accelerate self-reconstruction.

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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.”

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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.

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