Experts share challenges of healing children affected by torture


To illustrate how resilience works when victims of torture begin the healing process, Jorge Barudy, a leading neuro-psychiatrist, crumpled up a ball of paper.

“Imagine this being a boy or girl,” he said. “This is what trauma does. And the effects are cumulative.”

As he smoothed out the paper, he added, “In therapy there will be help from one or several therapists…He or she gradually regains strength because as a human being we have our own resources to overcome traumas if supported, and that is what we call resilience.”

Barudy participated in a unique two-day workshop and panel event organized by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (UNVFVT) on how children and adolescents are specifically affected by torture, which was held recently in April in Geneva, Switzerland. UNVFVT is managed by the UN Human Rights Office.

Through the UNVFVT support, some 150 torture rehabilitation centres in over 80 countries funnel direct help to victims of torture and their families. One of those centres is EXIL, where Barudy, the director, founder and a former victim of torture in Chile, has dedicated himself to helping victims as a therapist.

During his presentation at the event he showed MRI images of the brain, clearly showing torture’s devastating effects on the hippocampus because of massively elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. The hippocampus allows humans to feel empathy.

“Victims’ ability to empathise is affected by torture. They suffer from attention and memory disorders. And their self-esteem is damaged,” he said. 

During his opening statement at the panel event, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein detailed some of the suffering children are subjected to around the world.

"Even very young children are spared no suffering – including the use of specific machinery to inflict pain; mock executions; the obligation to witness pain being inflicted on other children or family members; and sexual mutilation and assault,” he said.
“Indeed, children are often targeted because they are children, as a way of intimidating entire communities, or to leverage additional pain onto their parents.”

Laura Dolci-Kanaan, Secretary of UNVFVT, said the expert workshop provided a chance to discuss the unspeakable with those professionals who work at organizations supported by UNVFVT and who are working directly with child victims of torture. These experts included psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers, social workers and medical doctors.

“A typical human rights gathering will denounce violations and call for advocacy,” she said. “But with these experts we could examine, document and exemplify the actual harm of torture to the body and soul. And by the same token, there’s also a way forward. If you invest in a human being, you get a human investment back for the next generation.” 

The event came at a time when UNVFVT figures show a 32 per cent increase in the incidence of torture for children up to the age of 18 over the past year and a half. It offered a rare opportunity for experts “to establish important links between the clinical and legal work specifically required to deal with the traumatic experiences of children and adolescents affected by torture,” said Gaby Oré Aguilar, Chairperson of the Fund.

“Only through dedicated and specialized efforts and financial resources, will it be possible to stop the transmission of trauma from one generation to another,” she added.

During the interactive dialogue, Paul Orieny, Clinical Advisor for Mental Health at The Center for Victims of Torture, based in the United States, said early assessment, screening and treatment for torture victims was crucial. Effective rehabilitation must be of a high quality and deep level and could take years.

Redress is a core component of rehabilitation. On the topic of proving victims have been tortured so that they can access redress, Sana Hamzeh, founder of RESTART, a center for rehabilitation of victims of torture and violence in Lebanon, said countries must make sure professionals are trained in and follow the Istanbul Protocol, a manual designed for documenting torture. “Even if you find inconsistencies you can derive evidence that torture has taken place, but people really need to be trained,” she said.

Hamzeh’s role as therapist comes with a heavy toll. “We hear descriptions of untold brutality, psychological violence of unfathomable cruelty," she said. "Let it be known, ladies and gentlemen, that I do not walk away unscathed from my interviews — that the bruises on my soul are increasingly numerous.”

Despite torture’s irreversible mark on a human being, Barudy said continuing research showed that people have been able to overcome trauma and were able to “redefine their experience and flourish.”

The discussions were enriched with the insights of representatives of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances. 

15 April 2016


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