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  • Kelly Watt

womenswork: When Does Abuse Become Torture?

Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson have been fighting for survivors for a long, long time. I know because I used to volunteer with them, and now here I am again, in more progressive times, let’s hope, encouraging people to follow their work. Linda and Jeanne are both retired registered nurses from Nova Scotia. They founded Persons Against Non-State Torture. They are trying to get non-state actor torture (NST) included in the criminal code in Canada. I know it’s a mouthful, but here’s the herstory behind their intention.

In 1993, they were offering part-time counselling to women who had suffered violence, when a woman called them on the phone late one night, and told them she was going to commit suicide because of torture she’d experienced if she didn’t get help. They listened and literally talked that survivor down from the ledge. Since that pivotal night these two women have met with thousands of women around the world, whose assaults and abuse, whether in childhood or adulthood, went beyond the terms currently in use in the criminal code. Abuse whose severity and repetitive nature slides into the arena of torture.

Linda and Jeanne are unique in that they take a human rights perspective. Quoting the United Nations on their website: The right not to be subjected to torture is codified in international human rights treaties signed by many countries. For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“No one shall be subjected to torture, to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Much of Linda and Jeanne’s work focusses on helping survivors of human trafficking and ritual-abuse torture, both groups are often tortured into compliance to be used in sexual slavery. They define torture as violence that goes beyond abuse and includes, drugging, shackling, burning, caging, etc. Let me clarify below…

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) defines torture as:

Any act whereby severe pain and suffering, physical or mental is inflicted.The acts are intentional. The acts are committed for purposes such as inflicting punishment, or to intimidate or coerce, or based on discrimination of any kind. The State is aware or consents or acquiesces to such acts that are impermissible under the CAT.

There are many cases around the world that acknowledge torture takes place-- Australia, France and California, for instance. Linda and Jeanne want Canada to step up, and start recognizing NST or domestic torture, so that survivors can get the acknowledgement, help and support they deserve.

They have been invited by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo to present on NST at the Boston University law students public lecture in Boston on November 13. Their website is Persons Against Non-State Torture:

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