Domestic violence as torture

Human Rights should begin at home.                                                                                                   - Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces  (1989), 143

The abuse of women by their male partners is among the most common and dangerous forms of gender-based violence. Seen as "personal," "private," a "domestic" or "family matter," its goals and consequences are obscured, and its use justified as chastisement or discipline.

Rhonda Copelon has chosen to compare official torture (recognised by international community as jus cogens and universally condemned) with commonplace domestic violence against women partners, making a point that such violence is no less grave than other forms of inhumane and subordinating official violence. EgLex has taken such comparison further comparing not just spousal battering with torture, but also psychological violence with mental torture.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of death among women. Source: UN Study 25.11.2018

Official Torture

The infliction of physical pain is common in the practice of torture. For women it often involves sexual violence.

Among the most insidious forms of brutality are those that do not involve overt brutality. Anguish and disintegration of the self can be accomplished through passive methods, leaving no marks. Stress, manipulation and exhaustion are designed to break the will of the tortured through domination, humiliation and destruction of all sense of autonomy.

Domestic violence - physical

Like torture, domestic violence commonly involves some form of, usually escalating, physical brutality often accompanied by sexual violence and threats of mutilations (facial, breasts, genitals or disfigurement). The psychological suffering caused to women as a consequence of living in a battering relationship is profound.

Domestic violence - non physical

Dependency, debility and dread are often the non physical methods used to break the personality in the domestic sphere. Fear for the loss of kids is described by women as being even worse than actual physical or sexual brutality. Women lack economic means and support systems to find shelter and provide for themselves and their children, and therefore stay in unhealthy family situations.

Torture as punishment

Torture bypasses the civilian prosecutorial system and constitutes an alternative system of punishment, unaccountable to the existing system of justice.

Domestic Violence as punishment

In the case of intimate violence, patriarchal ideology and conditions, confer upon men the sense of entitlement, if not a duty, to chastise their wives - a social license, a duty of masculinity, engrained in culture and immune from legal sanction. Such violence is inflicted on women-partners for their failure to serve, produce, or be properly subservient. With the "home as his castle", the domestic aggressor may often operate with even fewer constraints as the official torturer.

Torture as intimidation

Torture seeks to intimidate on three levels: the individual victim, the group with which the victim is identified and, ultimately, the entire society.

Domestic Violence as intimidation

Domestic violence is also designed to intimidate both the individual woman who is the target and all women as class. On the individual level, the goal of domestic violence is to "domesticate" her; to terrify into obedience; to prevent or deter her any assertion of difference or autonomy.

The fact that intimate violence involves a breach of trust cannot be underestimated: "she is courted rather than kidnapped into violence." She must "unlearn love and trust, hope and self-blame." (Herman, Trauma and Recovery.)


The purpose of obliterating the personality captures the ultimate horror of both torture and domestic violence as an assault on human dignity. While severe pain is world-destroying, when pain passes, the person usually regains the "self."  Torture - both intimate and official - seeks more than temporal pain. It seeks to reduce a person to passivity and submission, to destroy self-esteem, confidence in life, and the capacity for resistance. It involves degradation, humiliation, terror, sense of wholeness, and self-worth. The Inter-American Convention would prohibit violence whose purpose is to "diminish" (never mind "destroy") the person's physical and mental capacities. Clearly the psychological as well as physical effects of domestic violence meet this standard.

Were Domestic Violence to be treated as torture under the UN and Inter-American Torture Convention, States would be obliged to take legal and other measures to prevent it through training, investigation, and prosecution or extradiction of all offenders.

Such a recognition would prevent expulsion, return of a woman to another state "where there are substantial grounds for believing that she would be in danger of being subjected to torture [or gender-based violence]."

Understanding domestic violence through the lens of torture should contribute to shifting the burden of responsibility from victim to perpetrator. This is crucial step not only in doing justice to women - survivors of domestic violence, but also in recognizing that the roots of this violence lie in the structural inequality and subordination of women.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres made a statement in this regard, and said:

At its core, violence against women and girls is the manifestation of a profound lack of respect ― a failure by men to recognize the inherent equality and dignity of women. It is an issue of fundamental human rights.