Two Nova Scotia advocates are calling on the federal government to amend the law to make non-state or domestic torture a specific criminal offence and not just a form of assault.

Linda MacDonald and fellow registered nurse Jeanne Sarson say adding domestic torture to the Criminal Code would encourage more victims to come forward and receive the help they need. 

They told their story to CBC Investigates. 

"It would affirm their suffering, and they'd be more comfortable in feeling that they're going to be believed in court, or believed by the police instead of being called crazy or mentally ill," she says.

"A lot of the crimes, the way they're perpetrated, they seem almost unbelievable to people still."

MacDonald and Sarson founded the Persons Against NST (Non-State Torture), a human rights organization based in Truro.

Over the past 20 years, Sarson and MacDonald estimate they've dealt with 3,000 victims of domestic torture around the globe, including about a dozen in Nova Scotia.

In most cases, the victims are women and children who suffer extreme violence at the hands of family members, including confinement, beatings and rape. Many have been sold for sex.

Sarson says the existing law doesn't address this kind of crime.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald help torture victims.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald help torture victims through their organization Persons Against NST (Non-State Torture). (CBC)

"We have a law that says if you're a state torturer, which is police or military or government official, that if you do these things you will be charged with torture. But the individual, the private person, if they do the same kind of acts of violence, then our country doesn't hold them equally to account." 

For victims of domestic torture, such as Elizabeth Gordon, recognition in law is an important validation.

"I think we've still got a way to go. And that would mean for people like myself — that what happened to them would be recognized. The type of support you need when you're tortured is very specific."

Gordon, 57, made contact with Sarson and MacDonald four years ago. She sought help after a childhood of "extreme violence."

She says she was chained, drugged and raped by her parents in her home in England. She recently travelled to Nova Scotia to meet with Sarson and MacDonald. She credits them with saving her life.

"I would like people to know that torture happens in the home and it can be your parents. I think that's really hard for people sometimes to hear," she says. 

When cases do come to the attention of police, Sarson says, their only options are to charge perpetrators with human trafficking or assault.

"Canada has said that they're fine with calling torture assault and we're saying no, because there is a human right globally that no one should be subjected to torture. Canada's so-called politicians haven't been interested in dealing with that," she says. 

Peter MacKay rejects call for new law

A few countries and states have passed laws recognizing domestic torture, including Australia, France, Michigan and California.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the federal government has no plan to include domestic torture as a criminal offence.

"The reality is that there has not been to date a pressing case to amend the Criminal Code to expand sections that would encompass further coverage of torture. We have sections now that do that quite adequately," he says. 

MacDonald disagrees. She and Sarson will continue to lobby for change.

"We just made a commitment to expanding this work and raising awareness about it and doing activism and committing to the children that are still trapped in these groups and families," she said.

"When we die, hopefully it will be a much more visible crime and they'll have more help than the children who are in these families now, because it is primarily a family issue."