Former UN special rapporteur leads expert panel to recognize gender-based violence as torture 

Rashida Manjoo, a visiting professor of the University of Connecticut’s Department of Human Rights, was a moderator on April 4, 2023, for a panel of experts discussing gender-based violence as torture. Photo by

On Tuesday, April 4, the 2023 Gladstein Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Rashida Manjoo, moderated an expert panel at the Dodd Center for Human Rights, where experts discussed recognizing and reframing gender-based violence as torture. Manjoo is the former United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences.  

The panel consisted of four people: an expert in public international law, two human rights activists against non-state torture and a political scientist who is also a Human Rights Institute professor at the University of Connecticut. 

These panelists sought to redefine and reframe gender-based violence as torture, utilizing legal clinical work, activism and scholarship to assert how redefining gender-based violence is necessary to improve the response for its victims.  

The co-founders of Persons Against Non-State Torture, Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, shared the story of Sarah, the first woman to come to the organization in 1933. Sarah did not recognize herself as a person entitled to human rights, MacDonald said.  

As a child, she was subjected to brutal torture at the hands of her family and strangers. As a result, she could not talk about her experiences out loud, and could only write or draw about them, said MacDonald and Sarson. 

Sarah’s drawings depicted water torture in a tub or sink, being restrained, tied down, dehumanized and her being trafficked by her father. MacDonald described Sarah’s basement as a torture chamber in her home where people threatened her with guns and rape.  

“Sarah really didn’t know that she was a person when she came to us. She was so demoralized, so dehumanized that she had to learn through us working together that she indeed was a person and that she had human rights and that was very important to her,” MacDonald said. 

The first step to recognizing gender-based violence as torture is redefining the actors of torture. Gender-based violence is not different in any significant way from what is understood as torture if society admits that torture by non-state actors is a distinct form of gender-based violence, according to MacDonald.  

“Probably most times when you hear about torture you think of state torture which is police or military,” MacDonald said. “But what we’re here to tell you is about the torture that we hear about and happens to women who are trafficked by families or strangers.”  

The NST defines non-state torture as “torture that occurs in the domestic or private sphere within families or everyday relationships, human trafficking, prostitution, pornography, groups and gangs,” according to MacDonald.  

Sarson went looking for information about non-state torture when they heard Sarah’s story, but she said there was no information available. 

When Sarson and MacDonald visited schools to teach about human rights to groups of 13-year-olds, they brought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with them. They guided the students through articles 1-7, but cut a hole out of the book where article 5 was. Article 5 of the UDHR states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  

“We had quite a discussion when they had to start realizing that discrimination existed in the Universal Declaration,” Sarson said.  

After Sarson asked Sarah how she would describe her experience, Sarah replied she had never experienced gender-based violence and that it did not fit her experiences.  

Not recognizing gender-based violence as torture makes it difficult for victims like Sarah to heal, Sarson and MacDonald said. Naming it torture may offer “increased legitimacy” to their experience and less tolerance for its practice, David L. Richards, a professor of political science and human rights at UConn, said.  

Carla Festerman brought a legal standpoint to the issue, stating that torture has a “clear normative legal framework.” 

“The crime of sexual violence is recognized in international criminal law frameworks as a crime against humanity or a warcrime,” Festerman said. “Judges have the tendency to find that female victims of rape or other gender-based violence experience sexual violence, and they don’t list torture as an offense whereas male victims of rape or gender-based violence were considered torture or other inhuman acts.”  

Through a survey study, Richards found that people exposed to a victim testimony of gender-based violence or expert study were more likely to perceive gender-based violence as torture than people who haven’t been exposed. He also found that the more progressive attitudes toward women, the more a person will perceive gender-based violence as torture. Being in the age group 45-64 decreases the likelihood of a person recognizing gender-based violence as torture.   


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