International Day In Support of Victims of Torture


The United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) treaty came into force in 1987. Unfortunately, torture is one human rights infringement which is practised by several countries in the world against their political prisoners or prisoners of war. However, torture in today’s world is not just limited to state condoned torture, with a rise in mental health afflictions, it has also seeped into the households of citizens.

Historically speaking, it could be argued that torture then was strictly limited to physical harm and thus cases of emotional or mental torture were never reported or brought to the fore. However, the UNCAT considers willful physical or mental harm and pain caused to an individual or individuals in order to punish them, extricate information from them, control them, coerce them, force them to make a confession or because of a certain bias against the victim’s race or ethnicity. The said harm is carried out in front of an official or an individual who is in a capacity to hold official power.

International Day In Support of Victims of Torture

The convention strictly prohibits torture against political prisoners or prisoners of war or people living in conflicted areas. While this is a broad understanding of the diktats of the UNCAT, we would like to go one step further and include abduction, torture and trauma  amongst civilians into our understanding of torture and torture victims.

You must be wondering how torture, a rare occurrence in the everyday lives of general citizens is a major healthcare issue. We would like to clarify, that when we speak of torture and its effects on physical and mental health, we speak largely about the prevalent forms of torture in our society.

This International Day in Support of Torture Victims, let us turn our gaze inwards and glance at our homes. We would like to clarify on the onset that we in no way are minimizing or diminishing the pain of those facing torture and persecution in the way defined by the UNCAT, but we would like to take this opportunity to push the cause further to recognize different kinds of tortures and their survivors.

Why Celebrate the International Day in Support of Torture Victims?

Torture is one of the grossest infringement of human rights, even a small episode of torture may have lifelong psychological and physical impact. After two world wars and several prisoners of war facing torture in prisons, the United Nations woke up to the idea of the damage torture is causing to those who stood as a line of defence for their respective countries. Survivors of prisoner of war camps showed signs of lifelong physical and emotional trauma, which generally manifested as PTSD, depression (including manic depression), anxiety, suicidal tendencies, crisis of identity, misplaced rage, stockholm syndrome and in some cases even schizophrenia. By observing this day, the UN aimed at creating awareness and compassion for torture survivors as well as create survivor/victim support camps to help victims deal with their myriad of emotions after being released. In the 30 years that have passed since the ratification of the UNCAT, there are still prisoners of war, victims of torture under a dictatorial government, and to add to those we now have victims of torture under civilians.

Torture Caused By State Vs Torture Caused By Individuals:

There have been several cases of torture inflicted by civilians on other civilians. In most cases such individuals assume a role of power and authority. Glaring examples of our times would be cult leaders, fringe political groups, intimate partners, even strangers who have kidnapped another with the purpose of torturing them. Victims in such situations face severe emotional and physical torture and yet, unlike the victims of state approved torture do not have any instinct to hate their torturers.

You may wonder why or how it happens. Well, the answer is simple, a prisoner of war, a person living in a conflict zone, a person tortured by a dictator, even individuals tortured by their own states for alleged crimes of sedition all have an identifiable enemy, most commonly it is the state and its machinery. The rage they have built up is generally against the state. A good example of how torture victims can have bottled up and damaging rage against the state is the Bollywood movie New York where John Abraham plays the role of a torture survivor, who was wrongfully detained and tortured for information by the American state.

However, when an individual is tortured and wrongfully detained by private parties, and have one to one contact with one or more tortures, their response to the abuser could be different. In such situations the torture is more psychological than physical. This leads the victim in internalizing violence, eventually convincing them that they themselves are the cause behind the violence they face from their torturers.

In both cases, the common theme being that victims suffer from a suppression and eventual loss of self identity and integrity. In fact, some even start seeing their bodies as their enemies because they have no control over the body and its needs, making them completely dependent on the torturer. Such dependence exposes their vulnerabilities, allowing their tormentors in systematically breaking them out from inside- out.

Without delving much into the types of violence and torture faced by both state prisoners as well as individual civilians, we would like to move onto the possible behavioral patterns exhibited by victims post their rescue. As mentioned before, an individual can show symptoms of various trauma induced psychological illnesses. However, we would like to discuss two prominent issues, one of which is quite dominant in private party initiated torture. They are:

  1. Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)
  2. Stockholm Syndrome

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD):

We have discussed the difference between PTSD and C-PTSD in a previous post, but a general understanding of C-PTSD is that these are symptoms or behaviour exhibited by individuals who have been exposed to trauma repeatedly and for a longer period of time. Such an experience may also have lead to the development of hate towards the abuser or the feeling of seeking revenge:

1. Anxiety Disorder:

We have discussed Generalized Anxiety Disorder in detail in a previous post. To sum up briefly, anxiety disorder is characterised by chronic worry accompanied by a feeling of expected doom. The patient is hounded by persistent worry and fear of shortcomings. An individual feels constant pressure to control their surroundings. Such individuals also exhibit tendencies, and any sudden changes in plans may take them down a negative spiral, where the minor change becomes an indicator of a catastrophe.

2. Depression:

Depression is the state of chronic feelings of melancholy or sadness accompanied by lack of interest in everyday tasks, loss of energy and a sense of increasing hopelessness. However, depression manifests itself in different forms in individuals, while in some cases depression is indicated by weight gain as well as their withdrawal from daily life. However, there is a functional version of depression where the individual is perceived to be living an uninterrupted life but can often be heard saying that they have lost all motivation to move forward. Bipolar depression is also known as Manic Depression and is symptomized by extreme mood shifts. An individual may suffer from feeling of euphoria to suicidal depression in phases.

3. Dissociation from Trauma:

This is the situation where the victim either suffers from amnesia where he/she can’t remember the torture or he/she have completely dissociated themselves from the trauma. Often zoning themselves out during the torture. Some victims have described an out of experience while being tortured, where they felt like they were watching the entire torture from outside their bodies.

4. Insomnia:

Most individuals who have suffered from a trauma, especially, trauma may be afraid of falling asleep. There could be several causes for this condition namely nightmares or the constant fear that sleeping would make them vulnerable to another attack. Chronic insomnia starts interfering in an individual’s daily life by impairing their judgment.

5. Reliving the Trauma:

A common theme played in most visual communication about PTSD is that the survivors keep on reliving the trauma. Triggers could be anything from closed spaces to rattle toys, but any sound, smell, or situation can trigger memories for survivors of torture. In effect, even the individual has been physically saved from the traumatic situation or torture, their minds still live in the trauma

Stockholm Syndrome:

Stockholm syndrome is named such after an incident in Stockholm in the 1970s. A group of robbers tried to rob a bank and took some bank employees as hostage for several days. At the end of the ordeal, the hostages showed an increased sense of empathy towards their abductors. The hostages defended their tormentors, to the extent that one victim later got engaged to one of the tormentors while another paid a hefty sum to bring in a good defence lawyer for one of the robbers.

Research over the years have ascertained that this positive emotion emanating from the victims towards the tormentor emerges from the heightened survival instinct in the victim. Research has further shown that even animals exhibit such behaviour in order to survive. However, in humans, it becomes difficult to continually act submission, in fact, most victims are so afraid that their tormentor would recognize fake emotions that they condition themselves to show genuine emotion.

This genuine show of positive emotion is further encouraged by the tormentor through small acts of kindness. Some scholars also suggest that so great is the sense of relief and gratitude in victim towards their tormentors for failing to kill them, that every other act of violence is internalized. The victims even believe that they could make the perpetrator better by behaving a certain way. Such people also see law enforcement as the enemy, may even, defend their tormentor vehemently or may even go back to them.

Over the years there have been several bone chilling examples of how stockholm syndrome works. One such example is the curious case of Jaycee Lee Dugard who was abducted at the age of 11 and kept in captivity for 18 years. In those 18 years, she did not try to escape even once, in fact, after her rescue she admitted to feeling guilty for bonding with her tormentors. There are several cases like that of Patty Hearst, it would seem that the Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai starrer movie Ravana was loosely based on Patty Hearst’s life whose sympathy was so great that she joined her abductors in looting a bank.

In fact, survivors of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence also suffer from a form of stockholm. The often asked question is why didn’t the woman/man walk out of an abusive relationship, the answer lies in the mental conditioning of the victim, who has been systematically stripped of his/her identity and made to believe that every act of violence and torture has been their fault.

Infact, victims of child sexual abuse or abuse in their childhood may also exhibit positive emotions towards their tormentors, to the extent of defending and even supporting them. While these situations may seem too unique to be a population of the masses we need to understand exactly how widespread, domestic violence is in India. While the official global statistics claim that 1 in every 3 woman is a victim of domestic abuse. The research statistics quoted by ActionAid in India claims that nearly 70% of Indian women have faced domestic abuse at least once in their lifetime.

Similarly, a research report published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007, stated that nearly 51% children in India were victims of Child Sexual Abuse, while, an equally high number of them suffered from mental and physical abuse. The number for cases of child sexual abuse has remained static in the past ten years. According to a survey conducted by a humanitarian aid organization, World View India in 2007, 1 in every 2 children faces sexual violence.

It needs to be understood that under-reporting of such cases, especially in cases of male children, even under-reporting of cases of domestic violence, stem from a systematic process of control and submission. The children are threatened with trauma and ridicule and further violence to convert them to submissive participants. Similarly, women facing domestic abuse face coercion from social structures, threat of further violence on them or their children and hence, are never able to escape from their tormentors.

Having said the above, we also need to understand, that even when women are rescued, such strong is their dependence on their tormentor and so low is their self worth that they repeatedly seek out their tormentor or a similar relationship. Individuals suffering from any form of stockholm syndrome require constant psychotherapy and support.

Torture, PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome In Popular Culture

There have been several stories through the ages of abducted women who fall in love with their abductors. Romances have been written on such stories, glorifying stockholm syndrome in the process. Some popular examples of the same are:

1. Stockholm Syndrome and Beauty and the Beast:

This cult classic Disney popular movie is based on the story of a woman who was imprisoned by a proverbial beast in her father’s stead. Over the course of the story you are shown the good side of the beast, who doesn’t harm the girl in any way. The beast even takes care of Belle, however, he doesn’t allow her to go back to her father. In essence, he controls her freedom. She is free till she is under his watchful eyes. In the course of her stay, the beast fall in love with Belle and Belle reciprocates these emotions. Even when Belle is set free, she still returns to the beast, professes her love for him and lo and behold, he transforms both physically and temperamentally into a prince. If we observe closely, Belle shows signs of classic stockholm syndrome, where she is seen empathising with her captor, even believing that she loves him. Several movies have been developed as spinoffs of this same story, one example of this being, the Alia Bhatt starrer Highway.

2. Complex PTSD and the Movie New York:

As discussed earlier this John Abraham starrer movie is in part the story of a man who was wrongfully detained and tortured by the American Intelligence Forces. Throughout the movie John Abraham is shown as being afraid of uniformed men, as being hyper aware of his surroundings, even paranoid. The movie in part also shows, how this suppressed rage acts in individuals. The rage he felt against the enemy, that is the American state, drove him to seek revenge by killing more innocent persons. One of the results of torture is that it numbs down the empathy of individuals. In state induced torture situations, several individuals seek revenge against a virtually faceless state by lashing out at innocent people.

3. C-PTSD and the show P.O.W. Bandi Yuddh Ke:

This popular show was the story of two Indian prisoners of war who had escaped from their prison in Pakistan. The torture described, also included an episode where Pakistan’s loss in sports led to bouts of severe violence against the prisoners. The rescued prisoners however showed signs of PTSD, with both reliving their torture. Similar themes have been explored in the popular T.V. series called Homeland.

4. Stockholm Syndrome and the show P.O.W. Bandi Yuddh Ke:

This popular show several psychological issues, one of them was the story of another army man who was isolated and converted. The story being that another P.O.W was forced to shoot this man, who was later saved by the head of a terrorist organization. The individual stayed with the headman and was taken care of. In due course, he empathised with their side of the story, and the loss of a loved one triggered the individual in acting against his homeland. The popular T.V. series Homeland, shows similar themes.

5. C- PTSD, Stockholm Syndrome and the Movie Kidnap:

This Minisha Lamba and Imran Khan starrer is a movie about both PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome. While Imran Khan’s character suffered from C-PTSD, Minisha Lamba’s character suffered from Stockholm syndrome, where she nurses her injured kidnapper instead of escaping. Even wishing him well in the end.

6. Stockholm Syndrome and Pinjar:

Pinjar is a heart rending story about a woman abducted from her home and love. The story follows her attempts to escape, to the point that she had option of starting anew in a post partition India but she chooses to stay back for the love of her kidnapper.

There are several popular culture plays, movies and shows where the same theme is repeated. There are even more real life cases, one such case being as old as the early 1930’s when a young woman was abducted from her home by four men. She was held hostage for 29 hours, post which three of her kidnappers were arrested. The woman spoke out publicly, supporting her kidnappers, even feeling guilty about their imprisonment. She frequently visited her kidnappers in prison. She eventually committed suicide, following her father’s death. In her suicide note she said, that she believed that her four kidnappers were the only people who did not believe that she was an utter fool. The woman was named Mary McElroy and was the daughter of Kansas City Manager, Henry F. McElroy.

Through these stories we have tried to highlight how complicated the mind’s torture coping mechanism could be. Persons emerging from any form of torture, whether state approved or individual induces struggle with their own unpredictable emotions. These emotions also prevent women from escaping from intimate partners who torture them for years on end.

Knowledge and understanding of such issues helps us understand the plight of refugees, women and children and the psychological trauma they face. Thus, this International Day In Support of Torture Victims let’s raise our wands to the survivors of violence and torture.


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