Breaking the Silence

Amnesty International takes on the torture of women

By Pilar Galiana and Valarie Oosterveld

Amnesty International is not for the faint of heart. We seek the release of prisoners of conscience people detained for their belie's, color, sex, ethnic origin, language, sexual orientation, or religion. These are people who have not used or advocated violence, but are themselves often subjected to degrading treatment and torture. Recently Amnesty has turned its attention to abuses perpetrated against women.

Women suffer human rights violations in different ways than men. Rape is often used as a counter-insurgency tactic. Women can be abused simply because they are the mothers, sisters, wives or daughters of men whom the government wants to punish. Sexual abuse is an effective form of intimidation in custody, for the perpetrators know that the victims rarely report the crime.

Sexual tortures range from verbal abuse and threats to women and their children, to strip searches to gang rapes with drug injections and objects injuring the vagina in horrifying ways.

In many parts of the world, women have little political or social power and are often kept from voicing their views publicly. In India for example, men speak on behalf of women except in special situations. In Pakistan the legal system permits a man's testimony to be believed over a woman's. A woman who accuses a man of raping her in Pakistan can in fact be charged with adultery under the Hudood Ordinance and sentenced to be publicly whipped, imprisoned, or stoned to death. For many reasons, women are silenced from speaking about the violence they have experienced. They fear:

Amnesty International's recently formed Women's Action Network tries to bring attention to the women who "suffer in silence." Several relevant human rights documents support this work: first, and foremost the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and secondly the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Work to stop sexual torture is a difficult process. Amnesty faces difficulties in documenting rape and sexual abuse, and only deals with abuse that falls within its limited mandate. The field is very new: it was not until 1989 that the U.S. Congress advised the State Department to include a survey of abuses against women in its annual Human Rights Country Reports. Confronted with the reality of sexual torture, women are sometimes overwhelmed by its brutality.

It is hard to read about sexual torture, but we cannot change what we do not acknowledge. When we break the silence we are able to take action, we are able to pick up a pen and write our opposition to violence. If you are interested in working with the Women's Action Network, con-tact Pilar or Valarie at(416)978-7434 or by writing to the Women's Action Network, P.O. Box 4836, Main Post Office, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, V6B 4A4.

Valarie Oosterveld is a law student and the current Vice President of Amnesty International Group 83. Pilar Galiana is the President of Amnesty International Group 83.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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