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Impact of testimonial therapy and folk school on the survivor of Torture and Organized Violence

Impact of testimonial therapy and folk school on the survivor of Torture and Organized Violence
Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi and Ms. Shirin Shabana Khan

The Republic of India is the world’s second most populous country, and twelfth largest economy. India gained independence from the UK in 1947. It is a federal republic, made up of 28 states and 7 union territories. India have signed the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) however, it has not ratified it. The present government states that India has adequate provisions to prevent torture in its existing domestic laws. However, torture is not criminalized in domestic Indian law, and security forces and police perpetrate human rights violations frequently in most if not all states of India. Despite constitutional guarantees, legal protection and reports in the media, beatings, rape and torture seem to be part of a routine continuing unabated.
Political, social-cultural and legislative context
The Indian criminal justice system
Human Rights Watchdogs and critical observers agree that the Indian criminal justice system seems to be dealing with two broad categories of people: those who live above the law and those who are absolutely crushed by it. Prisoners are one of the weakest constituencies in the society. They have no voting rights, have very limited access to the outside world, and are under the complete control of the prison authority. They cannot speak with the press, write letters or speak with their families without the permission and/or censorship by the prison department. In India, majority of these voiceless people remain in prison pending trial or conviction. Most recent statistics reveal that over 65% of the prisoners are under-trials and they may continue to be held in overcrowded prisons for years. The occupancy in prisons exceeds by 41.4% over and above its sanctioned capacity. A huge majority of these under-trial prisoners are poor. They are denied bail for want of monetary security. And trials take years. Often, they have no lawyers, live in pathetic conditions, do not have access to adequate medical care, and are likely to be tortured or exploited. Many times, the legal aid lawyers and prison officials are also unaware of the existing legal standards. The system fails the prisoners at every turn and often times the agencies blame each other for non-performance and unaccountability.
Rehabilitation centers

Under Indian law, there is no enforceable right to rehabilitation for torture survivors. Private medical and psychological support is offered by only a few rehabilitation centers and torture survivors cannot access the public health sector, due to lack of specialized rehabilitation and rejection by the health care providers. In most cases, torture victims, who have approached PVCHR for assistance, have never been referred for any kind of treatment.
In this context of impunity, limited access to justice, and limited rehabilitation services, PVCHR with RCT identified a need for a psycho-legal approach. The two organizations have so far partnered on three pilot projects on testimonial therapy. Preliminary experiences show that testimony has a potential for creating new dynamics in the justice process; converting the survivor’s private pain into a new political voice to challenge impunity, contribute to the establishment of the rule of law and people-centered advocacy. The pain and the agony expressed in the testimonies help to convince the judiciary and human rights institutions about the injustice committed against the plaintiff. It was easier to elicit a coherent story from survivors and it seemed to release their pain during narration of self suffering of being tortured
The Constitution and international legal obligations:
The Constitution, adopted in 1950, guarantees fundamental rights, such as the right to life and personal liberty, equality before the law, procedural rights, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, cultural and educational rights, and the right to redress in courts. Salient provisions of the Constitution are summarized in annexure . The Constitution prohibits caste-based discrimination, but while caste barriers have largely broken down in large cities, they persist in rural areas where 72% of India's population lives. Nevertheless, the caste system, in various forms, continues to survive in modern India strengthened by a combination of social perceptions and divisive politics.
India has ratified six of the nine core human rights treaties, and has signed (on 14 October, 1997), but not yet ratified the UN Convention against Torture (CAT). It has a dualist system, meaning that international law must be transposed into domestic law by a legislative act. The government introduced the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010 in the Parliament with a view to ratifying the CAT. However, in its current form this Bill is not fully compliant with the CAT, as interpreted by the Committee against Torture. The definition in the Bill is not as extensive as that in the CAT, the Bill includes a limitation clause despite the jurisprudence of the Committee that such clauses should not apply to the crime of torture, and the Bill addresses only the issue of criminalisation, but not related issues such as witness protection or investigation procedures.

The pattern of torture in India

International monitors report widespread violations of human rights in India, including the use of torture. Dramatic examples, where there is ongoing violence; torture and organized violence (TOV) by both state and non-state parties against minorities; and torture as standard operating procedure in police investigations of crime. The perpetrators, in order of importance, include the police, military, border police, forest officials, prison staff, and railway police.
Over 6000 credible cases of police torture were documented in India within a three year period, in states not directly affected by war or insurgency. Data projections from this study suggest that more than 1.5 million cases of torture, ill treatment and inhuman behaviour may take place every year at the hands of the police, not including other perpetrators. The majority of the torture takes place in rural India, where the prevailing social structure does not allow someone from a lower caste effectively to enforce their rights. Dalits, indigenous groups, women, religious minorities and the poor are the primary victims of torture. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are overrepresented among the tortured compared to other castes. Most victims fear further persecution or retribution, and so suffer in silence.

The purpose of torture is to extract information or confession from the suspect in custody. At times, torture is also employed against political opponents of the party in power, to intimidate witnesses or deter complaints against the police, or for simple extortion of money and favours. Police brutality and misuse of force are common, and anti-terror legislation in particular has contributed to a culture of impunity. Indian National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) has failed consistently to report or investigate reported cases of torture, although they have been given powers to do so.

As already mentioned individuals who are poor and socially and politically marginalized are especially vulnerable to prolonged detention and repeated ill-treatment because they are unable to bribe police to secure their release and are unlikely to have connections to local political figures that can intervene.

Testimonial Therapy
The testimonial method represents a brief cross – cultural psychosocial approach to trauma, which is relatively easy to matter. The method was developed in Chile in 1983 and has since been used in many variations in different cultural contexts. In 1998 Bosnia For refugees - led to improvement in PTSD and depressive symptoms. In 2002 Kosovo: For refugees – seen as a narrative exposure treatment – a cognitive method. In 2003 Netherlands: For refugees – seen as exposure to traumatic memories and adjustment of inadequate thinking and in dame year 2003 Germany: For traumatised Bosnian refugees – feelings of self-esteem and dignity were regained. 2004 Mozambique: For survivors of civil war in rural camps – decrease of psychiatric symptoms. In 2004 Uganda: For Sudanese refugees in Ugandan camps – Narrative Exposure Therapy had promising results for treatment of PTSD and in same year 2004 USA: For adolescent Sudanese refugees – an acceptable interaction bridging cultural gaps preventing refugees from seeking psychiatric help. In 2005 Iraq: For injured humanitarian workers after bombing of UN HQ in Bagdad – a safe structure to recall the traumatic event and in same year 2005 USA: For African Americans – personal and collective stories are told and the person is seen within the community. In 2008 Sri Lanka: For torture Victims – a brief therapy intervention – re-integration into the community – development of a Manual (published by Asian Human Rights Commission). In 2008 – 2009 with PVCHR, India developed a new testimonial method “psycho-legal approach” brief therapy intervention for torture survivors to – re-integration of survivors into the community
The aim of the testimony was to facilitate integration of traumatic experience and restoration of self esteem. However the communication of traumatic events through testimony may also have been useful because it channelled the patients into socially constructive action – production of a document that could be used as an indictment against the offenders. The possibility of putting their experience to use resulted in the alleviation of guilt.
It is an approach that emphasizes the denunciation of human rights violation and advocacy to obtain justice. The method is also brief and can be used both in the individual and community interventions, and by the non –professionals with specific training in methodology. Giving testimony about one’s suffering is probably a significant component in the healing of trauma across culture, whether the frame of reference is psycho –legal, psychodynamic, existential, spiritual, political, cognitive- behavioural or narrative.

By giving testimony, survivors benefited psychologically and became better able to cope with the difficult present. Feelings of self-worth and dignity could be regained and a trusting relationship between the survivor and the listener facilitated the therapeutic process. The testimony material documented human rights abuses both in the country of origin and in exile, helped us to perform informed advocacy for this group and informed a larger public on the psychological costs of refugee resettlement policies
The testimonial therapy procedure in this model is performed over four sessions:
• Session one: Opening the story
• Session Two: Closing the Story
• Session Three: The delivery ceremony
• Session Four: Follow-up
The testimonial method can be used with survivors of torture only if they have complete trust in the therapists. Therefore, the therapists must be part of an organization the survivors already know and with which they have established a bond of trust. This will most likely be a human rights organization, which has already made legal testimonies with the survivors and supported them in their fight for legal justice and reparation.
The duration of each session is normally from 90 to 120 minutes. The survivor should be informed before the session starts about the number and duration of the sessions. The first and second session includes a meditation (“mindfulness”) experience guided by the therapists, in which the survivor and the two therapists sit together for ten minutes in silent concentration on their breathing and with awareness of their thoughts and feelings. The meditation will usually take place at the end of a session.
The testimony is written in note form by the note-taker during the sessions. After the sessions, the interviewer and note-taker collaborate on filling-in the missing parts of the story and produce a computer version of the narrative. The story in the written testimony is in the first person (“I experienced”, and not “he experienced”). The story about the traumatic events is in the past tense, while sensations and feelings produced by telling the story are in the present tense. In the training course, the steps for writing a good testimony is explained and practiced. A testimony should include detailed information about the torture experience, the perpetrator(s), emotional reactions of the survivor to the experiences at the time when it happened and now, the impact of the torture on the survivors life (impact on relation to family and community), and the steps taken by the survivor to obtain justice.


Session One: Opening the story
When starting the first session the testimony procedure is explained, beginning with a psycho-educational introduction to the survivor in which his or her symptoms are explained both as a result of the torture and of the violation of universal human rights, which has taken place. A preparatory introduction to the therapeutic approach is given: the testimony should not be seen by the survivor as directly related to expectations of obtaining immediate justice and reparation but as a way of healing the psychological effects of the torture. Then the M&E questionnaire is completed, and it is explained that the data are confidential and will only be used for developing methods for helping survivors of torture.
The survivor is then asked to give a short description of personal background and individual history prior to the first traumatic event or persecution. With open questions the survivor is asked to briefly describe the stressful events s/he has experienced and choose one major, overwhelming traumatic event. The therapist gives an overview of the different events to help the survivor trace one of the experiences and help him/her really begin the re-construction of the story. The therapist separates overlapping stories (if the survivor wants to tell about more than one event). The therapist organizes the themes and helps the survivor to explain unclear elements in the story. It is important that the therapist is “in control” of the situation and leads the survivor in getting to the main points of the story. The survivor narrates the facts concerning this event (time, place, duration and people involved); the survivor’s role during the event (observer, participant, active or passive); the individual and social dimensions of the experience; the survivor’s perceptions and feelings at the time of the event; the survivor’s perceptions and feelings at the time of the testimony therapy . The therapists (interviewer and note-taker) are empathic and warm. Contradictions are clarified, and the survivor is urged to describe the torture in as much detail as possible and to disclose his or her emotions and thoughts at that moment. The therapists may use culturally appropriate touch, e.g. a hand on the arm of the survivor. A mindfulness meditation experience ends the session.

Session Two
One of the therapists starts the second session by reading the written testimony to the survivor in a loud voice so that the survivor hears that his or her story has been given voice. It often has a strong supportive effect on the survivor to hear his or her story of suffering told with another voice. The survivor is asked to correct the story or add any additional details that may have been missed, and the therapists continue the session as during the first session. They focus on the relationship between the stressful experience and the present situation, and the survivor is encouraged to express his or her feelings about the future (individual, family and community). A mindfulness meditation ends the session. After the session, the therapists correct the document to produce a final version of the testimony.

Session three: The delivery ceremony
The delivery ceremony can be performed in different variations according to the wishes of the survivor and the circumstances: a public ceremony (with a wider audience in the streets) or a more private ceremony (with the community, support group or family), a political ceremony (a demonstration), or a spiritual ceremony (with emphasis on cultural ritual and purification). In the ceremony, the interviewer (or note taker) reads the testimony out to the audience, and the survivor is presented with a printed copy of his or her testimony. Speeches could be given praising the courage of the survivor, who might be awarded flower garlands or some other honorific symbol.
In this project, PVCHR held a public delivery ceremony in honour of the survivors. The ceremony was also a political demonstration against torture and was held in front of the District Government Headquarter of Varanasi where 14 testimonies were read out in public and delivered to the survivors who were also honoured with a cotton shawl (a symbol of honour in India) and a speech which praised their bravery and encouraged them to continue fighting for justice. Many of the survivors and their family members cried when they heard their stories read out, and said afterwards that they felt very happy. At the end of the ceremony the 14 survivors spontaneously sat down in a circle and spoke with each other about their feelings. The ceremony was transmitted by local TV networks and written about by the press.
Session four: Follow up
The fourth session is a post-therapy testing to monitor and evaluate the outcome of the testimony therapy. One of the therapists meet with the survivor one to two months after the last intervention (public ceremony, community meeting, or delivery of the testimony), and the M&E questionnaire is filled-in.

Folk School, a survivors’ support initiative as torture prevention strategy and community healing
Essentially, the folk school approach is to establish equality in a society by improving the speech capacity of the poorer and the weaker section of the society. Improving their capacity to talk back and thereby creating a two way discourse in the society is the way the concerns of the weak are brought to social discourse against TOV.
Matters of justice depend very much on the capacity of concerned people to un-censor themselves and to speak out constantly. Normally there are many unwritten rules through which people censor themselves. For example, some topics may be considered taboo in some societies or sub sections of societies. For example it may be an unwritten rule that some “lower class people” do not talk back to “higher class people”. It may also be that some unwritten rules of censorship are enforced by punishments. In all these instances the capacity to un- censor ourselves is an essential component of seeking justice. When a small group of people begin to un- censor themselves others watch and soon begin to un-censor themselves as well. In this manner taboos invariably dissolve. The initial stages of un-censoring require:
1. Location from which you can break the rules of censorship while assuring protection for yourself.
2. The will to break such rules of censorship.
3. Creating an audience for you, which may at the beginning, is small.
Keeping at it day in and day out until taboos such TOV slowly begin to eliminate.

Building self-esteem:

A human/survivor having self-esteem is creative, happy, and active and has more confidence. Survivors derive confidence about themselves from the way they are treated, mostly by their family/community/therapist/social worker /society at large.

Considering that we work with the marginalized survivors, who have experiences of deprivations of various kinds, building self-esteem among these survivors assumes greater importance.

Self-esteem refers to the sense of personal worth and ability that is fundamental to an individual's identity. The term self esteem can be explained as an essential quality that one should have, to become a confident and independent person. It is also called as self pride, where the person feels proud of himself/herself and the things he does. A person with high self esteem considers himself/herself capable to achieve whatever he sets out to do. S/He not only knows about his/her strengths, but also his/her weaknesses. On the other hand, a person with a low self esteem doubts his/her abilities for every step s/he takes, and this attitude may lead to failure in his/her professional as well as personal life. This surely shows the importance of having a high self esteem.

Facilitating Critical thinking:

Critical thinking is a process, the goal of which is to make reasonable decisions about what to believe and what to do. Philosophers emphasize the importance of survivor's exposure to causality and logic. Improvement in survivor's cognition allows them to produce new ideas and confront problems by reasoning through them. This 'critical thinking' allow survivors to explore their own concepts, derive conclusions and dispute the reasoning of others.

Because we all are continually making decisions, critical thinking is important to us in personal and vocational, as well as societal aspects of our lives.

Folk school-Education for life:

The challenges marginalized communities today faces are many, and they need to develop skills beyond the mere numerical and literacy skills.
Education for life should be one that is able to have an all round development of the marginalized. She/he should try to develop life skills that will make him/her an asset to society and re-build the society based on the principle of social justice. Education for life in the 21st century includes the ability to lead change, think critically, work in teams, create and quickly adapt to new changes - technology, be a self-managed learner, communicate effectively, and understand the needs of the communities in which we live and contribute.

Developing Leadership:
The objective is not to teach survivor how to become a leader but to enable them to develop their full potential and teach them basic ethics and values so that they become strong individuals with the capabilities to become a leader. The best way to teach survivors about leadership is by first telling them why individuality and ethics are important. Leaders are the most pro-active people in any group so survivors need to be taught to take the initiative. Discussions with real life examples of leaders and fighting survivors will inspire and motivate survivors.
Helping survivors analyze a situation and take in a lot of different perspectives is also an effective way of teaching how to approach situations differently. Learning from each experience is a very important trait of a leader. Leaders are knowledgeable, so encourage young to read the newspapers and books regularly. Reading can be a great source of inspiration for aspiring leaders.

And lastly, teaching survivors to set goals and high standards. This does not mean we force survivors to achieve the impossible, but enabling them to aim for the best. And more importantly, empowering them how to get there too!

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Shirin Shabana Khan

Social Workers/Philosopher

Uttar Pradesh ,  INDIA

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