27-Apr-20 Violence Against Women as Torture

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I am drawing across two lecture topics delivered this week – torture and violence against women – to raise a question about definitions and power.  What we include in definitions matter; the boundary between what is ‘in’ and what is ’out’ has material impact.  So when we are trying to think critically, we should always ask, “Why is this issue represented as this, and not this?”

In much of the literature on ‘torture’, the perpetrator is identified as an actor of the state and the context is often political.  So we focus on the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison by US soldiers on Iraqi detainees, the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects by UK intelligence and security services, or ordered by former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir in Darfur, for example.  This is because international legal definitions of torture require the involvement of a state actor/public official.  For example, Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:

“Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

This definition contains three cumulative elements:

  • the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering
  • by a public official, who is directly or indirectly involved
  • for a specific purpose.

It is of course crucial that light is shone on state-perpetrated, state-sanctioned or state-enabled torture: both historic and present day.

However, there is torture in other contexts.  The coercive and sadistic practices of some domestic abuse perpetrators, of some human traffickers, and of some who perpetrate sexual violence and abuse against women (men) and children in a domestic setting, fit the definition of torture, but the perpetrator is not a public official.  Gender violence scholars, activists and some policy-makers have considered this overlap:

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, n.d. Domestic Violence and the Prohibition of Torture and Ill-Treatment.  Thematic Consultations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  [online]. Geneva: OHCHR. 

McGlynn, C., 2008. ‘Rape as ‘torture’? Catharine MacKinnon and questions of feminist strategy.’, Feminist legal studies., 16 (1). pp. 71-85.

Mulvey, A., 2017.  Female Genital Mutilation should be recognised as a form of torture.  LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security Blog. [online]  London: London School of Economics.  

Sarson and MacDonald (2017) take a single case study approach to consider the trafficking and facilitating of sexual torture perpetrated against children.  This is a very tough piece, so a strong health warning please if this could be an emotional trigger or otherwise upsetting. 

The authors do make a strong case that the torture practices of private or public actors may be indistinguishable.  So why raise this question of definitions?  Well, if states were obliged to consider some forms of violence against women and girls as torture, this could place new accountabilities on states to act, and in new ways.  In many countries, such violence falls out of view as a ‘private’ or ‘domestic’ matter or it is under-penalised because the range of offences available do not reflect the gravity of the acts perpetrated, or their impact, both on individual victims and society broadly. 

Maintaining this distinction between what happens in the private sphere of the home and relationships, and what happens in the public sphere of state and politics – can enable the minimisation and suppression of harm in the former.   That’s exactly what the feminist writer Karen Millett meant when she wrote in her 1970 book Sexual Politics, ‘the personal is political’. 

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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