The Blog

We Must Face Non-State Torture to Stop It

Non-State Torture, learning about it, acknowledging that it happens and hearing what it involves, turned my view of the world on its head.

My generic perception of torture was people being held captive by state officials, hurt and forced to say or do things for the purpose of extracting information or exacting some kind of revenge.

But Non-State Torture happens in the private sphere and those committing it do it for kicks. It is more than abuse. But in most countries, while the acts are clearly illegal, they are neither classified as a specific crime, nor specifically named as torture.

Think about what is done to people in the fashionable 'Nordic Noir' books and television shows we love. It's like that, except it's ten times worse and it's real.

I first heard about Non-State Torture as part of my voluntary work for Feminism in London, the UK's largest women's rights charity.

I was introduced to this abysmally under-reported area of human rights violations by the founders of Persons Against Non-State Torture, Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson.The Canadian registered nurses' mission for the last 22 years has been to show the world that Non-State Torture is carried out every day. And to convince governments and international law-making bodies that Non-State Torture must be classified as a specific human rights crime.

When I started learning about Non-State Torture, I read about small girls having hot lightbulbs and sticks forced into their vaginas, causing blisters. Being raped repeatedly, making the blisters burst.

Women being forcedly impregnated, having the pregnancies violently aborted and being forced to consume fetal tissue.

Little girls who had to watch their pets being harmed or killed, or were forced to harm or kill their own pets.

Women locked up and tortured for years by people they trusted. Husbands, fathers, strangers.

Toddlers raped by their fathers; toddlers whose mothers joined in.

Girls who were hung, cut, burned, electric shocked, left in freezers.

Some survivors, years later, opted not to have children for fear of not being able to protect their child from the Non-State Torture that they had suffered themselves.

Imagine that being a factor in your decision about whether to have a family.

Women and girls are disproportionately affected because reproductive capacity is used against them. Objectification of the vagina is a common theme and control and suppression of female bodily and sexual autonomy plays a key role. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a form of Non-State Torture.

Linda and Jeanne explained to me how Non-State Torture is rife in the sex trade.

"When Linda and I began knowing that families could begin trafficking and prostituting their daughters when they were toddlers, we realized they grow up thinking they need to learn how to perform well to make their parents "happy". They do not understand their parents are also pimps, traffickers, torturers. So even as an adult, a woman we know asked for help but she did not understand that she was still being pimped, trafficked, tortured; it was all normal," Jeanne explained.

"As to women who enter later, it is fair to say that because patriarchal discrimination normalized prostitution and mixes violence with "sex", women we know coped by dissociating or drugging out the violence. The sexualized Non-State Torture they suffered has not been named until now," she said.

It was hard reading.

Then I listened to the Non-State Torture panel at Feminism in London.

I heard stories that gave me physical chills. I heard about how a survivor can come to dissociate from their body, referring to their parts as "the foot" or "the hand," their sense of self destroyed.

Worst of all is the knowledge that Non-State Torture was committed against someone I know; someone brave and kind and hopeful. And when I try to process what was done to her, I can't handle it.

As part of my work for Feminism in London, I worked with an artist, Gemma Steele, on visual promotional material for social media. Non-State Torture was the hardest panel to promote.

We both had days when we could hardly handle what we were learning.

"As a passionate feminist, environmentalist and vegan, I've subjected myself to a traumatic inquiry of the violent truths of this world. I thought I'd seen it all, but nothing came close to the brutality of what I learned when researching Non-State Torture. What my Google image search presented stopped me cold. I felt physically sick, and couldn't compose myself for some time. This is like the stuff of the darkest fiction," Gemma told me.

Linda and Jeanne are used to hearing people react like that.

"It does turn one's world view upside down," Jeanne said.

"But it also has the potential to finally stop such horrific victimization; to have the knowledge to protect children, the legal ability to stop the impunity enjoyed by the Non-State torturers. It sends a much more profound message when one is charged for torturing versus 'an assault.' It educates society differently and relationally," she said.

Linda and Jeanne have brought hope to women who have lived through unimaginable atrocities. Women who had tried to speak out before but had not been believed.

"One milestone is the remarkable feedback from women who have endured Non-State Torture, telling Jeanne and I how important our work and writings have been to their healing and feeling heard. The survivors keep saying to us, 'we know you know,'" Linda told me.

The only way I can sum up Non-State Torture is the wilful destruction of human beings, in private.

It is a human rights abomination.

We must name it, we must criminalise it and we must stop it.