The power of art therapy for torture survivors

Lembe, a torture survivor, wrote her name on a colourful cloth. As part of her rehabilitation therapy, Lembe worked passionately on it, designing a fish, a bird and adding the names of other survivors. “Designing on the cloth helped my creativity,” she said “it allowed me to mentally relax, to learn how to express myself and to forget my daily hardships.”

Group of women at an art therapy workshop organized by a rehabilitation centre © MANALembe used to be a nurse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was arrested because of her political views and tortured while in detention. She was beaten up and raped. Eye drops were forcibly put in her eyes which gave her excruciating pain.

Lembe was treated at one of the non-governmental organizations funded by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

The Fund, which is entirely reliant on annual voluntary contributions received from Governments, the private sector, and individuals, disburses grants to a wide variety of organizations that provide psychological, medical, social, legal and economic assistance to victims of torture to rebuild their lives.

Lembe’s artwork, which is part of a large patchwork, can be seen in an exhibit, organized from 21 to 30 June at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Fund. Titled “30 years Rebuilding Lives” the exhibit, which displays artworks by torture survivors who have been treated in about twenty organizations supported by the Fund, highlights the power of art as a catalyst for positive change and healings from the trauma of torture.

The artworks displayed are varied and are a testimony of the horror and hope that dwell in the victims` heart. The art crafts show that art making increases self-esteem and creates an identity through self-expression. When people focus on a certain subject and express themselves through art, they tend to forget their daily challenges.

Acts of torture may include being sexually assaulted, beaten or shocked, being kept without food or naked in the cold, or being suspended in the air for long periods of time. The symptoms of the trauma are intense and may include nightmares, loss of appetite, fear, depression, inability to concentrate, and they are often accompanied by shame, sense of guilt and distrust.

“These practices dehumanize both victim and perpetrator and leave scars on people, communities and entire societies that can be very difficult to heal,” said UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay in commemorating the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which falls every year on 26 June.

The rehabilitation centre where Lembe was treated, the Consiglio Italiano Per I Rifugiati (CIR), provides assistance to torture victims and organizes workshops as part of their psycho-social rehabilitation. Theatre, music and art help torture survivors “deal indirectly with the torture they experienced and gently approach the trauma in order to heal from it” said Fiorella Rathaus, the project manager of the CIR, which is based in Rome, Italy. “Torture destroys the person’s identity,” she said, “our goal is to try to rebuild it.”

A drawing by a torture survivor from an organisation based in El Salvador, la Comisión de Derechos Humanos, shows how her family had ran away from an area attacked by the military, leaving behind all their belongings. Another drawing features the torture suffered by the victim, a 55-year old woman, and her children. After participating in the art therapy workshop organized by la Comisión, the woman had “fewer nightmares and no fear to speak”. In another drawing, the sun, the moon and the rainbow are signs of the positive change experienced by another victim.

“Sadly,” said Pillay “despite the blanket ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in international law, terrible examples of its continued practice are documented on a daily basis.” “As we have seen very graphically in North Africa and the Middle East over the past few months, men, women and even children are tortured in detention simply for expressing their political views, in order to force confessions, or just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she added.

24 June 2011