Relational Feminism and Non State Torture: An Australian-Canadian Connection

Linda and Jeanne protesting against Non State Torture in January 2010

Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson

Phone calls, emails, web links, SKYPE and written letters from mainly women, describe this Canadian-Australian connection which relates to voicing similar ordeals of non-state torture (NST) victimization. Professionals from both countries also consult us. They seek support for their work with women’s suffering due to NST victimization, which predominately begins in childhood and often continues into the adult years. Because this category of torturers, if possible, generally persist to harass, intimidate and assault the women they victimized as children.

Non-state versus State torture. Globally, human rights language distinguishes torture as being either non-state or State actor inflicted. State-actor torture refers to torture committed by a State, for example, torture that is perpetrated by government officials such as police, military personnel, or prison guards. It is generally referred to as torture that happens in the public sphere, in places such as prisons, police lock-up cells, in an embassy, or on military bases or posting in or outside a country. Conversely, non-state actor torture refers to torture committed by a spouse, by parent(s) and intergenerational family members, guardians, and like-minded others such as pedophiles, human traffickers or gangs, that occurs, for instance, in the private sphere of home, cottage, private buildings, warehouses, or in out-of-door spaces on farms.[1]

Pedophilic non-state torture. Najat M’jid Maalla, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur (SR) on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, made reference to an Australian Federal Police study that found 21% of pedophilic crime images – pornography – included rape, bondage and torture.[2] In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Child Exploitation Unit stated 20% of such images viewed involved torture and bondage.[3] One Canadian report assessed 4,110 pedophilic images showing  victimized children suffered;[4]

  • Torture, bondage and bestiality – 111 (2.7%)
  • Being forced to inflict sexualized harms against each other
  • Necrophilia
  • Having demeaning words written on their bodies
  • Degradation – being defecated and urinated on
  • Weapons being used against them

Additionally, the violent assaults were mostly inflicted on children younger than eight years of age, newborns and toddlers were seen in 9.8% of the violent images, and 83% of the pedophilic images involved girls.
These ordeals briefly reflect what Australian and Canadian women detail surviving and witnessing. When the women were girls they report witnessing the torture of others, including infants. Expanding somewhat on necrophilic harms, pseudo-necrophilia was facilitated by immobilization drugging, with necrophilic horrification that involved the killing and use of dead pets and animals. Such humiliation and degradation torture tactics serve to inflict intentional and purposeful destructive dehumanization.
Destruction. The goal of torturers, whether non-state or state, is destruction of the humanness, personality, and identity of the person they torture. Women speak of feeling like the “walking dead”, a “nobody”, and like “an animal”. They commonly speak of not knowing they are human or a person with human rights, therefore, to be informed they are human beings with human rights, including the right not to be subjected to torture,[5] is, initially, a foreign concept.

Relational feminism. Relational feminism is our term, defining our approach to offering supportive care for healing from NST victimization. In the most simplistic of terms it is ‘doing the opposite of what the torturers do’. Torturers aim to destroy the victimized person’s relationship with/to/for Self. Doing the opposite means building one’s relationship with/to/for Self. The torturers aim is to force the victimized person to disconnect or dissociate from her-Self; doing the opposite is to re-connect with her-Self.

Relational feminism requires acknowledging that female-gendered violence is a global relational reality and a human rights violation. Accepting this truism is essential for the women to realize it was/is never their fault they were tortured. This helps to dissolve torture enforced esteem Self-harming – torture enforced hatred for being a woman, for being born a girl, or for having a vagina which is frequently expressed as, “if I didn’t have a vagina I wouldn’t have been torture-raped”. These words illustrate how healing requires dismantling torture inflicted Self-destruction patterns to work at gaining a respectful relationship connection with/to/for Self with entitlement to their human dignity. It is hard and painful work ‘walking’ through torture memories. However, relational connection requires gaining a clear understanding of one’s life – understanding what happened and why by developing the language to present a clear life-story narrative.

Access to socio-legal justice is a healing must as it promotes a victimized woman’s sense of social inclusion and human dignity. Women so tortured need the socio-legal right to be heard and never silenced from speaking their truth, which requires society to remember that NST exists on the continuum of relational violence (figure 2). Seeking criminal justice to hold torturers accountable is a fundamental core of compensation and healing processes, as is the need to develop torture victimization informed protection and care services.

Continuum of Relational Violence
Governmental knowledge of NST. Canadian and Australian governments know NST victimization exists. Reports released in both countries voiced that the torture of women and children occurred, including torture that was sometimes routinely repeated, in other words, was ritualistic in nature, and that children were also witnesses to torture and terrorization victimization.[6]

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT). As signatories to CAT, and receivers of reports from the UN SR re torture, Australia and Canada are required not to act with indifference or with inaction to crimes of torture, whether perpetrated by State or non-state persons; taking no action suggests a form of governmental agreement for the infliction of torture.[7] Prevention means protecting all citizens from torture even when torture happens in a home. For this to occur domestic criminal laws must not only be in place but must be utilized to cover all possible crimes that  fall under the definition of torture, including NST. It is impermissible to minimize NST to an assault, or another crime. Other offences do not equal the destructiveness of torture victimization. Such minimization leads to a culture of impunity, contributing one root cause for the continuation of acts of torture whether perpetrated by State or non-state actors.
UN Resolution 65/205,[8] urges States to assess the effectiveness of present laws, policies and interventions in relation to due diligence responsibilities not to commit human rights violations, to prevent such violations from existing and to respond effectively to eliminate such violations by ensuring domestic criminal law addresses acts of domestic violence that can constitute torture. The resolution also asks States to include gender-based manifestations of torture, including information concerning children in State reports submitted to the UN CAT Committee. Freedom from torture is a non-derogable right that must be protected under all circumstances and at all times in the public or private spheres whether perpetrated by State or non-state actors.

What to do.

  1. Always specifically name NST victimization in violence against women and girls information and reports.
  2. Consider NST as a human rights violation and develop an understanding of women’s or children’s responses to such victimization as being experientially normal and not a pathological disease syndrome.
  3. Never speak of pedophilic violence against girls and boys as ‘sex’ – it is never sex – it is always a form of violence.
  4. Educate the media about the inappropriateness of using the phrase ‘sex with a child’ in their news reports because referring to sexualized violence against a child as ‘sex’ can be viewed as support for pedophiles.
  5. Educate for prevention, protection, and prosecution developments by:
    1. Acknowledging NST victimization as a torture crime and human rights violation.
    2. Developing provisions for safety and security and informed investigations and charges for NST crimes.
    3. Collecting police and criminal statistical data on NST victimization.
  6. Educate and support each other.
We embarked of this life-altering journey in 1993 when we could not find help for a woman who was attempting to escape NST victimization so we decided to support her. At that time there was little spoken or written information about the torture of children or women in the home. When we began speaking out alleged perpetrators attempted to discredit us. Efforts were also made to silence us. Interestingly, these efforts were constructed by women. They failed. We continue to practice with a relational feministic perspective as this perspective has its roots in meeting and healing from the violence that harmed our lives as children and as maturing women. We remain grass-rooted, writing to break open the patriarchal misogynistic oppression re NST, as well as manage our 


  1. Sarson, J. & MacDonald, L. (2007). ?Is Canada a torture free zone? Retrieved June 10, 2011,
  2. Maalla, Najat M’jid. (2009, July 13). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (A/HRC/12/23, paras. 39-40).
  3. Caswell, J., Keller, W., & Murphy, S. (Producers). (2006, July 26).Supervisor of RCMP child exploitation unit, Ottawa, Earla-Kim McColl speaking about child pornography [Television broadcast]. Atlantic Canada: CTV News.
  4. Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (2009, November). Child sexual abuse images An analysis of websites by cybertip!ca. Retrieved May 10, 2011,
  5. United Nations. (1948, December 10). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5.
  6. Cooper, L. (2006, March). Final report: Women escaping intimate violence. Department of Human Services Research and Innovations Program (HSRIP); Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women. (1993). Changing the landscape: Ending violence ~ Achieving equality (pp. 45-47) and the Executive summary/national action plan (p. 5). Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.
  7. Nowak, M. (2010, February 5). Study on the phenomena of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the world, including as assessment of conditions of detention. (A/HRC/13/39/Add.5). Retrieved May 10, 2011,
  8. United Nations. (2011, March 28). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly 65/205. Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (A/RES/65/205). Retrieved May 10, 2011,

One thought on “Relational Feminism and Non State Torture: An Australian-Canadian Connection

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