‘Women Unsilenced’

November 12, 2022

From the November-December 2022 issue of News & Letters

by Adele

In 1993, Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, two Canadian public-health nurses and the authors of Women Unsilenced: Our Refusal to Let Torturer-Traffickers Win, started Flight into Freedom, a weekly, private-practice therapy session for women experiencing domestic and sexual abuse.

Their approach was informed by feminism, human rights, and their childhood experiences of abuse. Some patients had been born or married into families practicing Non-State Torture (NST) which goes beyond abuse. Perpetrators employ the same “classic” torture techniques, especially rape, used by state representatives—police, military, or prison guards. NST’s purpose is the enjoyment of causing pain and dehumanizing victims. Another purpose is prostituting victims to like-minded people who also torture and make pornography of them.


Like some abuse survivors, victims of NST experience “mental illnesses,” but, the authors explain, these are normal reactions to violence. Some experience seizures, physical pain, or dissociative states as a result of their bodies remembering being harmed. The authors call for the label of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be changed to Post Traumatic Stress Response.

NST often starts in infancy. Many victims are still controlled as they reach adulthood. They hand over earnings and credit cards to fathers or other family members. Always feeling different, shamed, dehumanized, and uncertain how to behave around “normal” people, they are often lured home on visits, desiring closeness and family. They are tortured or trafficked again. Breaking the silence is important in ending the control and achieving mental and emotional wellness. This can take decades.

Part of their therapy is to tell, write, or draw what happened to them. While some victims experienced Ritual Abuse Torture, the authors say media sensationalism of this aspect of NST in the 1980s and 1990s was counterproductive. Its purpose is to terrify victims and prevent others from believing them. Much has changed since that era. Police now acknowledge that torture and “snuff” (murder) porn exists, some of it on the internet. Sadists torturing women or running suburban prostitution rings make headlines. The victims know who is harming them, and the authors allow them to remember on their own without probing their repressed memories.

The authors sought help from and spoke with experts in subjects such as brain science, psychology of killing in war, experiences of concentration camp and torture survivors, and refugee children’s self-expression through art. Yearly, since 2004, they have spoken at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), where they learned from other women attendees that family NST exists globally. Alongside “classic” and “commercial-based” (prostitution) NST, they formulated a third category: socio-cultural norms, traditional, or religious-based acts include Female Genital Mutilation, child marriage, and acid attacks. Women now speak about their experiences of NST at UN CSW meetings.

NST survivors call for safe houses and gathering spaces offering NST victimization-traumatization informed care and knowledgeable protection from perpetrators. The authors work towards laws against NST. A legally binding UN human rights treaty addressing the global pandemic of violence against women and girls, including NST, is needed to hold member countries accountable.

The authors say: “healing is not only an individual responsibility…all of society contributes to either the harming or the healing of others.” MacDonald adds, “My ultimate dream is that we will evolve enough as humankind that we will prevent NST altogether.”

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