The Scars of Torture

After a woman suffers painful and terrifying complications during the last hours of childbirth, the worst is usually over for her.

That wasn't the case for Maimuna, one of scores of women in Kenya who have seen a hospital become a prison in the blink of an eye. She didn't have enough money to pay the bill for a complicated delivery, so hospital officials detained her for a month. During that time, hospital staff verbally harassed her and forced Maimuna to sleep on the floor next to a flooding toilet. All this time, her other young children waited for her at home until she could find the money to settle the charges.

Maimuna is not the first client of the Center's subjected to horrifying treatment at the hands of the people trusted with medical care. We are representing her and another plaintiff before Kenya's High Court in an effort to end a practice that has become all too common in this country.

This illegal detention and abuse in maternity wards, which causes severe physical and psychological trauma, is a clear violation of not only a woman's reproductive rights but also her rights to be free from torture or other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. On this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, it is important to recognize the unique pain and suffering that women are subjected to as they seek a wide range of reproductive health services to which they are entitled under international human rights law.

"Torture is not too strong a word to describe the often severe physical or mental trauma women suffer when they are subjected to reproductive rights violations, such as denial of access to abortion and contraception or abuse in reproductive health facilities," said Rebecca Brown, the Center's Global Advocacy Director. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has noted, the "abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering."

In P & S v. Poland, for instance, the Center represented a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after she was raped by a classmate. Despite having the right to abortion under Polish law, the girl and her mother were lied to and manipulated by priests, doctors, and the police, who forcibly separated the girl from her mother for a time and confined her in a juvenile facility. After one of the hospitals P visited in her search for help disclosed her personal information to the media, she was harassed and publicly humiliated before finally being allowed to secretly terminate the pregnancy at a hospital hundreds of miles from her home.

In K.L. v. Peru, the Center represented a 17-year-old Peruvian woman who was unlawfully denied an abortion after tests revealed the fetus was anencephalic, a congenital birth defect that endangers the health of the mother and causes serious physical deformities that in all cases lead to death within a matter of weeks at the most. K.L. was made to carry her pregnancy to term and forced to breastfeed the child for the four days it survived. The United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Peru had violated KL's rights, including her right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Women like these and countless others are targeted with reproductive rights violations in moments of singular vulnerability, while carrying a pregnancy or immediately after giving birth. The scars from this ill treatment run deep.

"Human rights institutions around the world have begun to classify reproductive rights violations as forms of torture or ill-treatment," said the Center's Rebecca Brown. "It's time for governments to do the same, to work with urgency to change the laws that facilitate these abuses and to seek justice for women who have been subjected to them."

Calling these atrocities by a different name won't help the girls and women who suffered through them. But by labeling them for what they are, we put all governments on notice that such treatment will never be tolerated.