Nova Scotia

Once dismissed as 'crazy nurses,' Truro human rights activists push UN to recognize domestic torture

For 25 years, Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald have been referring to trafficking and enslavement of girls and women, mainly by family members and pimps, as non-state torture. Today they addressed the UN Human Rights Council about it.

Jeanne Sarson, Linda MacDonald travel to Switzerland to address UN Human Rights Council

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald at the UN in Geneva where they presented at statement for the Human Rights Council on modern day slavery, non-state torture and human trafficking. (Submitted by Linda MacDonald)

Two nurses from Truro, N.S., took their message urging global action on domestic torture of women and girls to the human rights council of the United Nations in Geneva on Wednesday.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald travelled to Switzerland where they were one of four so-called "civil society representatives" selected to address the UN Human Rights Council membership of 47 states, including China, the U.S. and Afghanistan.

Jeanne Sarson reading a statement written by her and Linda MacDonald at the UN 37th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. (UN Web TV screen capture)

Their long-repeated message has been that torture isn't just meted out by government officials and agents. Women and girls can be tortured by parents and family members, with atrocities including human trafficking, prostitution, enslavement or pornographic victimization. 

Naming it torture gives continuing crimes against family members the attention and weight it deserves, they believe.

'We always take their voices with us'

"Non-State Torture is identified as a distinct and specific crime and human rights offence which must not be misnamed as being another form of crime such as an assault causing bodily harm or abuse," their website says.

MacDonald said it felt "very affirming" for her and Sarson to make the joint statement to the council.

"Non-state torture is rising up in awareness in the human rights world which is a great victory for survivors because we always take their voices with us," said MacDonald.

Their story of activism began in 1993 when they met a woman who revealed she had been tortured and trafficked since she was a toddler. The nurses turned human rights defenders have now been in touch with 5,000 women around the world who say they are victims of domestic torture. More than 30 live in Nova Scotia.

'Keep pushing'

Never before has their call to action — to recognize non-state torture as a gender-based human rights violation and a crime — been made on this high-level international stage. And the timing of their push to the UN seemed fitting with some members of the human rights council talking about the #metoo movement, and sexualized violence, said MacDonald.

But Sarson said she felt nervous reading the statement before the council as "non-state torture was probably a new concept for many of them." She thought that many would be closing their ears to their message. 

Sarson and MacDonald's statement urged the UN Human Rights Council's countries to recognize non-state torture against women and girls as a gender-based human rights violation and crime. (Submitted by Linda MacDonald)

Their message received encouragement from the UN deputy high commission of the human rights council. "She said: 'Keep pushing. We need civil society to campaign like you're doing so society will transform,'" said MacDonald.

There's still work to be done at home. The pair have been pushing the federal government for years to include non-state as a human rights violation, but to date there has been no commitment.

Society's evolution

MacDonald acknowledged that some members of the UN human rights council have poor records in upholding human rights, but that wasn't her focus. She said until Canada recognizes non-state torture in its Criminal Code, "we have no room to criticize other countries."

They remain hopeful. After their statement, they learned from the next presenter, a man from Uganda, that his country recognizes that torture can be committed by non-state actors. 

If Uganda can take action, so can Canada, they say. And they have no intention to slow down their campaign. The topic, while difficult to discuss, is gaining more attention.

"Being spoken about as crazy nurses 25 years ago to now be recognized as having knowledge and expertise on non-state torture and what the solutions are for society" show society has evolved, MacDonald said.

London resident Elizabeth Gordon, who says she survived parental torture and "trafficking-torture" in her childhood, said the statement to the council was important.

"I feel heartened and hopeful," she said in an email to CBC News. "It is crucial to my recovering and healing process to be recognized as a person with a human right not to endure non-state torture."

She said there is little to no access to services that recognize and understand torture's harms and impact.

"No one should have to search for decades to find recognition and recovery support as I did."