25 Mar 2020
Women of the IRCT: Lisa Haagensen

To mark the 2020 International Women’s Day (8 March), IRCT wants to celebrate the achievements of the many women in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement. These amazing women dedicate their lives to ensure that torture survivors can be healed and obtain a meaningful life after torture. Over the next weeks IRCT will feature some of these women and ask them what this movement means to them and what's it's like being a woman in the anti-torture sector.

Next in the series is Lisa Haagensen. Lisa is the Data Programme Manager for the Global Anti-Torture Database Project and has been working for IRCT for 5 years in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Women of the IRCT: Lisa Haagensen

Why do you think working in this area is important?

"Torture takes place within a culture of silence. The work I do tries to break this silence by arming torture rehabilitation centres with data collection tools. This is critical because without reliable information we can’t expose the true magnitude and devastating impact that torture has on individuals, communities and society as a whole."

Why do you think these problems exist?

"It is extremely difficult and dangerous to talk openly about torture. Survivors tend to be too traumatized to come forward and if they do, they risk being re-arrested, harassed, threatened and even killed. It doesn’t help that states deny that torture even exists. All of this contributes to an entrenched cycle silence, and if we can’t talk about a problem, we can’t fix it."

Do you think your work addresses the cause of the problem?

"Yes. Our centres see tens of thousands of victims each year and so have access to valuable, yet highly sensitive, information. We give them the technical tools to turn that sensitive information into aggregated and disaggregated data - anonymous evidence of torture with no personal identifiable characteristics. This means that victims can come together to use their experiences, use their voice, to expose torture and confront perpetrators –without risking their identity or compromising their safety."

How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspired you to continue working for social change?

"I was born in South Africa in the 80s. Injustice, human rights violations, discrimination and violence were everywhere, yet these were things I was protected from because I was born white and privileged. It never felt right, and that feeling has always directed me towards work that tries to fight against human rights violations. I never wanted that experience to be wasted or forgotten and working towards social change has been a part of that for me."

What are some of the problems you face in your work as a woman?

"Being taken seriously. In previous work environments (and especially those where female employees were in the minority) engaging on an equal basis during meetings or conferences was difficult. I have faced situations where I’m spoken over, ignored or have had male colleagues addressed in response to questions I posed rather than being addressed directly myself." 

What do you like best about this work? Least?

"Best: The people. I get to work with truly inspiring people from such diverse backgrounds, contexts, professions etc. This makes for a very rich and interesting work environment. 

Least: The insecurity surrounding the stability and sustainability of our work. Human rights work is notoriously underfunded and particularly at the moment. It can be frustrating to see the gaps and know that so much can be done to address them if only the support and funds were available."

Do you consider yourself an activist?

"Yes. It is important for me to be actively involved in trying to bring about political and social change in the areas that resonate with me the most. I am very grateful that I have a job that allows me to do this on a daily basis."

What are ways that young women can take effective action for change in the community?

"I think educating oneself is the starting point. Arming yourself with knowledge is a powerful foundation and will make you a better agent of change. The next step would be to turn that knowledge into action whether through campaigning, volunteering, sharing on social media, or working in the field. The point is - get experience. Finally, having passion and drive will help you stay committed when obstacles (inevitably) present themselves."

What role do you think women can play in the type of work your organization does?

"Women have always played a vital role in driving political and social change, especially in the fight for torture prevention and rehabilitation. The centres that my organization represents are filled with women who are providing psychological, medical, social and legal support to victims of torture, who are actively involved in holding governments accountable and advocating for change at national, regional and international levels, and who tirelessly campaign for and raise awareness of victims rights. Our movement wouldn’t be where it is today without the women who support it – often at great risk."

For more information

International Women's Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality.

International Women's Day (IWD) has occurred for well over a century, with the first IWD gathering in 1911 supported by over a million people. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.

To read more, please visit: https://www.internationalwomensday.com/

"Women have always played a vital role in driving political and social change, especially in the fight for torture prevention and rehabilitation. The centres that my organization represents are filled with women who are providing psychological, medical, social and legal support to victims of torture, who are actively involved in holding governments accountable and advocating for change at national, regional and international levels, and who tirelessly campaign for and raise awareness of victims rights. Our movement wouldn’t be where it is today without the women who support it – often at great risk."

-Lisa Haagensen, IRCT

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