Definitions and forms
Despite widespread State-violence against women, the typical image of the torture
victims is a male that is arrested or imprisoned, suspected of a crime of dissenting
political activity, tortured and maltreated in custodial settings.
Mainstream theorists did not until recently recognize that women, besides being
violated with the same methods and for the same reasons as men, often are
subjected to other forms of severe abuse that qualifies as torture or cruel, inhuman
and degrading treatment and punishment according to the definition in the
convention of 1984. Gender-based torture and CIDT is rape and other forms of
sexual assault, forced impregnation, forced maternity, forced abortion, forced
sterilization and sexual slavery.
Women are in many contexts sexually violated by officials, simply because they are
women and thus considered to be socially inferior human beings to whose bodies
and minds the person in authority feels he is entitled to get access.
Sexual abuse is meant to hurt, control, and humiliate, violating a persons physical
and mental integrity. Such intention falls under the Torture Convention: “or for any
other reason based on discrimination of any kind”. Rape is the single most
widespread form of sexual assault. The definition of rape varies from country to
country. IN most societies it is defined as sexual intercourse with another person
without consent, and committed by force.
My definition of rape for the purposes of this paper, adapted after Blatt (1995), is
Forcible penetration or near-penetration (vaginal, rectal, oral) of a woman’s body
openings by body parts of or any instruments used by a person in official capacity
during armed conflict or during peace with the purpose of manifesting aggression
and causing physical and psychological damage. Rape includes cases where a
woman is coerced by State officials to exchange sexual favours for certain
entitlements for herself or her family (food, necessary papers, health services) or is
coerced in sexual intercourse because she fear for her safety.
Other forms of sexual assault may be: Forcing the woman to take part in unnatural
sexual relations with others than State-agents, i.e. with family members or with
animals or other captives, inflicting pain on the genitals with different materials as
electric current, water, or mechanical stimulation of the erogenous zones, squeezing
or binding the breasts, suspension by breasts, genital mutilation, the forced
witnessing of rape or unnatural sexual relations (i.e. the use of animals as rats and
dogs), being forced to masturbate or to masturbate others, a general atmosphere of
sexual aggression that arises from being molested, stripped naked, degrading
remarks, and life threats, sexual threats, molestation without penetration.
All the above mentioned forms equate rape in a psychological sense, even if they in
a technical or legal sense do not involve penetration. The victim feels raped, dirty,
damaged and presents the same clinical picture in the initial health assessment as if
she had been penetrated.
Sexual assault is more often than not combined with other forms of physical torture
as cuts with knives, bottles, burning with cigarettes, beating with hands, weapons,
sticks etc., kicking, tramped with boots, pinching etc. This was often the case with
The war-raped women in Yugoslavia as the following example shows:
“After they abused me, they..(two soldiers) carried me naked out to the fields, placed me in the
watering through beating me mercilessly with the rifle-butt, shouting “we are going to kill you, you
whore, trying to force me to tell them where my husband was” (29 yr old Bosnian woman, in personal
communication under interview)
Psychological methods of torture have gained in importance in recent years. The
main forms include brain-washing, sleep, food, and water deprivation, denial of
sanitary means, confinement in isolation, mock execution, humiliation and
life-threats, forced witnessing of others being tortured.(Arcel et al 2001)
Sexual violence falls under both physical and psychological torture. Denial of
sanitary means is a special form of degrading psychological torture for women.
“I was chained to the wall, my arms and legs were spread apart. I started to menstruate. I could feel
the blood flowing down my leg. They mocked my body. I stood there wetting myself and covered in my
own blood. I felt so humiliated and powerless. I felt like a child in the most terrible nightmare
imaginable”.(Korzinski 1997 p.22)
Vulnerable groups: Women at risk are women suspected of crimes, ethnic minority
women, women active in the political opposition, defenders of human rights,
refugees, displaced and repatriated women, women with family links to persons
suspected or imprisoned. Women in prostitution and trafficking networks, women
migrants including migrant workers, poor women, women in institutions or in
detention, women in situations of armed conflict or foreign occupation, women living
in rural, remote communities (references).
In short, all women in detention and detention-like situations, unaccompanied
women in a socially weak position, or women in need of life-important services or
personal documentation papers from male State-agents.
Perpetrators during war. The military, security forces, militias, police officers or other
persons in a position of authority, i.e. guards in civilian detention camps, guards in
refugee camps, political officials with responsibility for distribution of goods and
Perpetrators during peace: Security forces, military police, judicial personnel, civil
police officers, prison officers, prison inmates on the instigation or consent of prison
officers, or other officials authorized with power over the individual as guards in
non-corrective detention centers, officials that are in power to provide important
Underreporting: Numerous incidences of sexual abuse are never reported for the
Sexual attacks are in most communities perceived as shameful and the victim is
stigmatized. She may be unable to marry or stay in a marriage if it is known that she
has been abused. Women’s lack of access to legal information, aid and protection.
In some societies she is perceived as the culprit that should be punished. There is
often a lack of effective prohibition of violence against women and, if it exists,
theories point to a lack of will on the part of the authorities to enforce existing laws
and punish the perpetrators. There might not be an effective complaint-system or information on the existence of one. Officials may fear that raising the issue could
damage the image of the Government or they may fear reprisals from colleagues
and superiors for revealing weak parts of the system. They may feel discomfort by
the subject as sexual violence often provokes strong emotional responses, and
many males and female officials do not know how to behave in front of an abused
Finally, officials may themselves condone the sexual violence or even themselves
participate actively in the abuse. (UNCHR 1998)
Posted on 2002-11-11