An installation on violence against women in Mexico City, 2018

Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson know input from women with lived experience is essential to inform effective, meaningful change within an area of gendered violence that is foreign to most Canadians — gendered torture.

It was 25 years ago that the Truro, Nova Scotia, nurses met a local woman who disclosed her experience of torture and trafficking that began as a toddler.

Since then, women from around the world have shared accounts of emotional, mental, sexualized and physical torture that’s occurred in private, public and domestic spaces. Torture committed by parents, spouses, blood relations, guardians, neighbours, trusted adults, strangers, human traffickers, johns, pimps, and pornographers. 

In 2004, MacDonald and Sarson discovered the emerging Amnesty International term Non-State Torture (NST), a gender-based human rights violation and crime that has yet to be recognized by the Canadian government.

MacDonald says, “It is very disappointing to me that the Canadian government claims to be feminist, yet remains patriarchal, dismissing the suffering of women and girls who have endured Non-State Torture by misnaming the crimes and human rights violations as assault.”

Canada’s refusal to acknowledge NST means survivors have only one recourse — to seek justice through the criminal court system by reporting their torturers for sexual assault or aggravated assault for every individual act. This is no small feat, given the reality that many have been tortured hundreds, if not thousands, of times over decades and by numerous torturers and suffered in-home terrorism.

In 1985, Canada outlawed state torture, which is recognized within the Canadian Criminal Code as torture carried out by the state or representatives of the state like police or security personnel — not by individual members of society within private domains.

By not distinguishing NST in the Criminal Code, society diminishes the human rights violations survivors have endured and keeps women and girls silent, powerless, and invisible. Simultaneously, the concealment of NST enables perpetrators to avoid punishment for their acts of torture.

NST must be named in order for survivor statements to be legitimized, validated and assigned the credibility necessary to bring about informed policing and prosecution. Using the correct terminology also ensures professionals and the general public understand and develop a literacy around this form of gendered violence. That, in turn, leads to advocacy, effective laws and greater enforcement.

Sarson and MacDonald can testify that without NST language and laws, lawyers make uniformed and often harmful decisions. They also know that, without NST literacy, the outcomes are devastating for children who disclose torture and are not believed by child protection workers who fail to follow through.

Using NST language is imperative because naming perpetrators as torturers conveys the true gravity and irrefutable brutality of their crimes.

In February 2016, Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos introduced a private members bill that recognized NST. Working with MacDonald and Sarson, Fragiskatos was hoping that Bill C-242 would offer legal recourse for survivors by acknowledging torture occurs in the private domain and within the realm of pornography and prostitution.

Specifically, NST includes prolonged sexualized torture including multiple perpetrators; physical torture; brainwashing; electric shocking; immobilization; suffocation; and deprivation of food, drink, and sleep.

Bill C-242 passed second reading in April 2016 and progressed to the Standing Committee on Human Rights, but died on the floor on November 29, 2016.

According to Sarson, “The Standing Committee saying a law on NST is ‘redundant’ was a shockingly disrespectful lack of political empathy. Imagining a Committee member in a face-to-face talk with a woman so tortured telling her that naming and identifying she was tortured was superfluous is unconscionable and to me borders on political cruelty.”

Naming and creating a law to address NST would generate reliable statistics, enabling service providers like MacDonald and Sarson to provide enhanced care for NST victims and survivors.

Eventually, the data would lead to comprehensive victim and trauma-informed care as well as NST-informed implementation of prevention and treatment services. These facts and figures would also prove invaluable when creating treatment and supervision strategies for perpetrators.

In February 2018, MacDonald and Sarson took their campaign to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. As MacDonald says, “Because the Canadian government refuses to follow the UN recommendations to include NST in the Criminal Code, socially shaming our country is an intervention Jeanne and I are forced to take.”

In March of this year the pair were in New York, taking part in a panel where they presented, “Making the Case: A new Legally Binding Treaty on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWGs).”

To advance their goal of a treaty, Sarson and MacDonald joined the newly formed global coalition Everywoman Everywhere (EE). Sarson describes the coalition as “Connecting with countries open to developing a new international human rights treaty on violence against women and girls as an essential intervention to address the global epidemic of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Sarson knows a legally binding treaty on VAWGs is the only progressive global option because, “As a woman, as a mother of twin sons, if one had been a ‘she’ the other a ‘he,’ ‘she’ would be of lesser human value than ‘he’. This is an unacceptable continuing norm. Protectively fulfilling the human rights of women and girls, including their right not to be subjected to non-State actor torture, with openness for emerging violations, must be met with respectful global support for this legally binding VAWGs treaty.”

Sarson, part of the EE Domestic Violence Committee, believes that “It would give women and girls a legal recourse for taking their complaints to when the governments remain patriarchal.”

MacDonald and Sarson have also co-authored (and are hoping to publish) a book detailing the lived experience of a Canadian woman who was held captive, tortured and trafficked for more than four years by her husband and his three friends. The focus falls squarely on the gendered perspectives of NST.

“Justice evolves and eventually women and girls who endure NST will win this battle for their human rights. I have been walking this path for a long time and don’t plan to stop till this terrible discrimination against them ends,” says MacDonald.

More information about NST can be found here.

To assist the NST campaign, you can email Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice ([email protected]) this message:

Non-State torture is not identified and criminalized in the Criminal Code of Canada thus is a human right discriminatory legal gap that fails to help keep “survivors and children safe.” I request that as you conduct a review of the Criminal Code of Canada that non-State torture be specifically criminalized.

Join the Everywoman Everywhere coalition by signing their public statement of support here.

Image: Flickr/unwomen

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Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...