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CJCCJ/Volume 65.1 (2023)

Women Unsilenced: Our Refusal to Let Torturer-Traffickers Win

By Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald (Eds.)
Friesen Press. 2021. 354 p.

Women Unsilenced: Our Refusal to Let Torturer-Traffickers Win is a powerful text written by former public health nurses Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald. The authors make strong arguments in favour of reconceptualizing acts of sexual and physical assault against women and girls (which is how they are currently defined in Canadian law) as acts of torture which violate human rights. They utilize story and truth-telling as a means of “unsilencing” women and educating readers on non-state torture through participatory or “kitchen table” research (p. 12).

This book includes a foreword by Senator Marilou McPhedran, a prologue, 13 chapters, and an epilogue. The book seems best suited to those who work in frontline support or public health spheres. Sarson and MacDonald often share their ways of knowing and caring in the book so that others can consider using them in their practices. Such sharing, particularly of underground practices and tools, is a welcome contribution for this audience, although it would have been helpful to learn about these tools concerning formal concepts and practices, especially for those who do not have a background in support or crisis work. Nevertheless, this book may be of interest to non-support workers and academics who could gain insight from the stories shared and the challenges faced by victims of torture. The general public may also be interested in reading this book and learning about the authors’ research and the importance of hearing women’s stories and protecting their rights.

As the prologue indicates, the book discusses troubling stories of victimization and abuse that can be described as “disturbing” (McPhedran, ix), mainly if a reader could be triggered by the graphic recounting of torturous acts. As they provide space for these women’s stories, the authors also recount their visceral and challenging reactions. In doing so, Sarson and MacDonald painstakingly remind us about the importance of knowing and understanding the pain that these victims go through (past, present, and future) so that we can provide them with the support they so desperately need and should be entitled to as victims of torture.

In the prologue (pp. 1-3), Sarson and MacDonald outline the central theme explored in the book: non-state torture perpetrated within families. They explain that Women Unsilenced is a “testimonial that exposes women’s realities” through a feminist lens (p. 3). Following the prologue is a very brief first chapter where the authors, who often refer to themselves by their first names (Jeanne and Linda) in a way that makes them feel familiar to us, detail a snapshot of a late-night phone call from a woman in need of help. Here, they set the stage for the following chapters, which outline women’s stories alongside the authors’ reflections and reactions. Throughout the book, these reflections represent a welcome addition as the authors’ attempt to draw awareness to the influence of their own experiences and beliefs on their work.

Chapter 2 focuses on Sarson and MacDonald’s journey from nurses to activists, and while helpful, it may leave readers with unanswered questions about the arguments the book is trying to make and the nature of the harm that their patients were facing. Thankfully, they begin to answer some of these questions by arguing that historically, the conceptualization of torture has been largely focused on men’s experiences, despite the sexual violence and harm perpetrated against women. By the end of this chapter, we have been introduced to the idea that torture can be and is indeed perpetrated by family members, neighbours, and friends.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Sarson and MacDonald discuss trust-building and detail the ongoing care they provide to a woman based on their intuitive practices. While these details are helpful, particularly for those working in frontline sectors, they do not provide any theoretical grounding or means for conceptual comparison of their care practices, which would allow for deeper understanding. Additionally, we as readers still do not know a clear understanding of torture-trafficking perpetrated by family members and their friends or why it happens. It seems that Sarson and MacDonald are trying to put readers in their shoes by giving us information the same way the woman mentioned in this chapter did: slowly and sparsely, filling in details, trust builds. While this attempt at storytelling is powerful, it can feel unclear at times, especially at this point in the book where one would hope more clarity would have been established.

Chapter 5 presents the modus operandi of “tortured and the torturers” (p. 45) and Sarson and MacDonald’s patriarchal divide and ritual abuse-torture models, respectively. They explain that Canada does not criminalize torture by non-state actors like family members. Notably missing from this section is a discussion of how these acts are currently conceptualized in federal law and why the authors feel it is inadequate and requires change. The authors briefly mention that by avoiding the label of torture, states avoid making these acts human rights issues (see p. 58).  Fortunately, a more fulsome discussion of why the label matters comes in the next chapter, alongside attempts to ground this research scientifically. In Chapter 6, the authors attempt to establish their credibility by explaining Capra’s (1988) influence on their research and the positive reception of that research, which they presented at various conferences. Although building credibility is essential for the reader, a brief mention of whether there was any research of this kind at the time or how Sarson and MacDonald’s research compared to the existing literature is absent here and would have been beneficial to a more precise understanding of the discourse at the time.

The theme of evil is explored in Chapters 7 and 8 through women’s stories of evil both within and outside them. In these chapters and those that follow, Sarson and MacDonald integrate and deconstruct anecdotes from women alongside their reflections and commentary, which is helpful to justify their arguments. In Chapter 9, we are more fully introduced to family co-cultures, where family members or others participate in and even hold power as leaders in their communities, while concurrently inflicting pain and suffering on victims as torturers. Along with Chapter 10, this section of the book leads us into Chapters 11, 12, and 13, which discuss broader implications of truth-telling, and the importance of informed care and educating victims of non-state torture on their rights as human beings.

Throughout the book, Sarson and MacDonald discuss their theoretical models and explanations of non-state torture and how these models resonated with victims in powerful ways, a strength of this work and their research. They have also provided space for victims to share their stories of pain, resilience, and everything in between, including many of their promises to not inflict the torture that they have had to endure. Without taking away from the aforementioned significant contribution, one limitation exists where the authors contend with existing literature or discourse in limited ways. Citing and engaging feminist discourse, particularly since the authors mention feminism and ‘herstory’ throughout the book, would have been helpful to provide a fuller picture for the reader and bolster their credibility related to their theories. Additionally, the lack of engagement with a longer list of academic literature could leave readers, particularly those familiar with feminist and critical research, questioning details related to methodology and ethics. Tying in peer-reviewed work related to feminist and participatory action research would address such concerns.

While Sarson and MacDonald share how they provide care and utilize tools they have created, which is helpful to other practitioners working with this population to compare/contrast with their knowledge; however, they do not consistently locate such practices within a broader context allowing non-experienced readers to understand how their work differs from typical care. The second limitation of this text surrounds the authors’ description and exploration of their care practices, which are not always presented alongside comparisons of formalized/mainstream ones.

Women Unsilenced represents an important contribution to the relatively new topic of non-state torture-trafficking of women. While it should be supplemented by other types of research and located among broader literature, truth and storytelling, like that in this book, are necessary and immovable in any discussion of human rights violations. Using participatory-action research and explicit self-reflection throughout, Sarson and MacDonald use this book and firsthand testimony to paint a very real picture of suffering and torture at the hands of family members, friends, neighbours, spouses, and other non-state actors.


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