Women’s Experiences of Torture in Africa


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.