Women’s Experiences of Torture in Africa

Introduction

CSRVDigitalThis Digital Story is a multi-media movie that combines photographs, sound, music, and text, with powerful narrative voices telling of women’s experiences of torture in Africa. Produced and recorded for The Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) by Community Media for Development (CMFD) Productions, this 10-minute digital story was created to raise awareness about women survivors of torture in Africa, and the long term effects of this horrendous human rights violation. The digital story was first shown during a panel discussion in October 2016 at the Open Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and is available for use as an awareness raising tool.

The Stories

The following 3 stories are told in the 10-minute video.

EVELINE’S STORY:

My name is Eveline; I am 36 years old. You know I am here, alive, because you can hear my voice. But there are many Eveline’s. Some of them have died already. Some of them have lived. Most of them have changed.

My husband was in government when things began to go wrong. Our family was targeted and I was imprisoned. I spent three years of my life in prison. It may as well have been thirty. As I entered the prison a male guard smiled at me. I was frightened, but believed I would be safe. Instead, I was constantly watching my back to see if I was being followed. Sometimes the male guards would not let me leave my cell to eat with the others until I had sex with them. After months of this I became sick and it was difficult to go to the toilet. I asked one time to see a doctor but a prison guard beat me so bad, I learnt to keep quiet.

Eventually, my husband managed to get me out. At first we were so happy to be reunited. I thought ah! Things will be okay again. But when I told him what had happened he grew very quiet…then very angry. Before this he had been worried about me. But now something changed and he grew almost…suspicious. It was after I told him I had been raped. Things were very difficult after that. My husband, my community, even my family treated me differently.

I heard of a group of women who had been through the same things. I sat and listened as other women spoke about what happened to them. They too felt that there were many selves. Many Rosas. Many Mabels. Many Evelines.

Sharing with each other released some of the pain. Who could understand us? Only each other. There was another group for the husbands and boyfriends of the other women and my husband agreed to come along. After a while, he understood what had happened to his Eveline. Now, we are slowly coming closer together.

My name is Eveline. And I have come to understand that what happened to me was wrong. I want to make sure that this does not happen to any woman again. Will you help me?

MATHILDE STORY:

My name is Mathilde. I am 34 years old and HIV positive. I am a survivor of torture. The things that happened to me in those 24 hours in the cattle kraal. they changed my life forever. I knew there were risks involved with my activism. I was young, the student movement was strong and there was a sense that we could change things. Really change things.

One day things did change. After a small rally at our university campus, a group of youths who supported the ruling government pulled me into a car. I was blindfolded and taken to a spot in the bush where cattle were kept. The smell of livestock, even now, takes me back to that time and I cannot stop shaking.

For a whole day and night, I was interrogated, beaten and burnt all over my body with hot fi rewood. I was half dead when my clothes were cut off with a knife and two men took turns to rape me. I was left in the bush for three days before a farmer found me and took me to hospital. My wounds needed treatment, but so did my mind. So did my heart.

My whole life was affected from this incident. I could not lift heavy things including my child, or the wood I would sell to make money. I was constantly sick and weak. Eventually, the doctors discovered that I had HIV. I see a social worker, take my drugs daily and see a counsellor. I received some small money from an NGO to start a sewing business from my home so I do not need to carry heavy things to make some money. I can support myself and my child again. Things are beginning to look better.

My body is healing slowly, slowly. There is only one thing that stays in my mind. My torturers. The people who did this to me are free men. I see them in town while I remain in this captive place in my mind and I think of justice. Where is the justice?

MARIA’S STORY:

My name is Maria. I am 40 years old and a refugee. After we married, my husband and I worked our land together. The police came to our house one day. They beat him. Why? Because he was a member of my country’s opposition party. He complained of chest pains and later died.

A few years after his death, I was attending a meeting, following in his footsteps. They came to arrest me this time. I was held for 3 days without any food. I was told I was being released. Instead the policeman drove me a long way, and when he pulled me out, we were somewhere in the bush. I fought him, but he kicked me, trampled on my whole body. He burnt me with cigarettes, on my thighs, and buttocks.

He raped me and smeared his semen all over me, and urinated on me. He said he wanted to make sure I never forgot what he did to me. He took me back to the police station and made me wash away all the evidence. He said if I told anyone, no one would believe me. If I told anyone, it would kill me.

After this my father decided I needed to leave the country. One night he took me to the border where I paid a truck driver to take me across. I thought I would escape the dangers that I faced in my homeland. But here, the dangers remain the same. I am always worried I will be returned to my homeland and the same things will happen to me again. I cannot go back.

For many years, I have lived with these secrets in silence. I tell people about my government. I tell them why I fled. But I do not tell them what happened to me. But talking about it has helped me to cope. And now I’m telling YOU my story. And I ask you, what will you do with it?


 

Key Facts Raised in the Story

• Human Rights Watch estimates that 1 in 4 women in the Great Lakes Region have suffered from sexual violence. In
some African countries, it is more dangerous to be a woman than it is to be a soldier.
• Women are especially vulnerable to torture and their experiences include being subjected to rape and sexual
violence by their perpetrators. Women in detention can be at risk of this and other forms of torture. Their sexual and
reproductive health can be challenged. Services may not be available or purposefully withheld.
• Victims of torture do not suffer alone, but torture also scars family members and friends. They are traumatised by
the abuse of a loved one, must face the impact it has on their relationships, and must face the numerous challenges
in accessing justice.
• The consequences of torture can go beyond the mental and physical pain inflicted through the torture experience.
It can also alter the victim’s life in many ways and may also result in contracting HIV, an impact on livelihoods,
economic and social security.
• Unfair trials mismanagement by the court system and few legal resources for victims all make it hard for survivors to get justice.
• In 2015 over 122 countries were found to engage in acts of torture. At the same time, access to justice for victim
groups in many of these countries is a big challenge. (Amnesty International report)
• Up to 35% of refugees have experienced torture, with even higher levels found in African refugee groups.
• Torture aims to breakdown the humanity, dignity and self-respect of the individual. Fear, is an essential element of
torture. For women, the kinds of torture they experience and their rehabilitation needs after vary from men’s. Gender
roles can change as a result of the torture experience and coping mechanisms for men and women can differ.

Background Information

The prohibition of torture is enshrined in many international and regional human rights instruments including Article
5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states that “Every individual shall have the right to
the respect of dignity inherent in a human being (African Charter, Art 5). All forms of exploitation and degradation
of man particularly torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment, shall be prohibited”. (Robben
Island Guidelines, Art. 45 (1). Despite this international prohibition, torture continues to be widely prevalent in more
than half of the countries of the world.

Torture is the deliberate infliction of severe pain or suffering on another person, whether physical or mental, to
obtain information or a confession, to punish, to intimidate, humiliate or coerce them. It may also be motivated by
revenge, discrimination, deterrence or simple cruelty. Where such abuse is inflicted by a public official, the misuse
of power adds to the severity of the offence. Torture takes many forms, including beating; electric shocks; partial
hanging and asphyxiation; removal of fingernails, teeth, fingers or toes; inflicting wounds with guns or knives; mock executions; and sexual assault, especially rape.

Torture and ill-treatment tend to occur in isolated places, such as prisons and other detention centres, where
those who commit acts of torture feel they are beyond reach and are accountable to no one. The risk of torture is
particularly high following an arrest and during pre-trial detention.