Speaking out on the torture of children

York master of environmental studies student Kevin DeJesus (right) is realizing a professional and personal dream that few students have an opportunity to experience. DeJesus is in Genoa, Italy, preparing to present his paper “Wounding the Future: Children, Youth, Gender and Torture” to delegates at a major international conference called Children and the Mediterranean taking place Jan. 7 to 9 in Genoa. DeJesus will give his presentation on Jan. 8.

The conference, established to enhance awareness of children’s rights among private and public organizations involved in policies and projects for children and youth, will be headlined by Queen Rania al-Abdullah of Jordan, who will present the keynote address. The conference will host presentations by leading thinkers on child development and child health and by people involved with international programs touching on these issues. Through workshops and presentations, over 1,000 conference delegates from all over the world will receive in-depth analyses and the results of research on the living conditions of children in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Social and environmental risks faced by children and youth will also be explored and documented. 

DeJesus will present as part of the workshop “Promoting Children’s Rights across the Mediterranean”, chaired by Ignazio Patrone of the Italian Constitutional Court. DeJesus was asked to participate in the conference after supplying details of his research in response to a call for submissions. “My presentation focuses attention on the issue of gender as a significant dimension of the practices of torture and war related violence, and its impact on children and youth,” he said. “For survivors of torture, and particularly youngsters who have experienced torture first hand or witnessed the torture of family members, their capacity to perceive a future and an everyday life that is one of meaning is often deeply wounded.

“Much of the work done on survivors of torture puts gender as an ‘aside’. In my presentation to the conference, I re-map gender into the processes of surviving torture, situating it as the key variable in how surviving such extreme experiences happens. Living with the legacy of torture is a demanding task with the survivor’s gender dictating how their world is organized,” DeJesus said. “I explore the conceptual issues around gender and human development, as well as the role that gender and identity play in enacting violence against youngsters and families in the contexts of armed conflict and state violence.

“The pivotal question in my research is: How are notions of the gendered, connective self reformulated in young people when they are faced with the task of building a life beyond war related trauma? Being a girl, boy, woman or man is a social and politically constructed learned process. When children are forced into reconfigured roles due to war related violence, previously learned notions of gender often collide with the abusive experiences of torture. Families no longer work the same way as they did prior to being tortured and forcibly uprooted,” said DeJesus. “I argue that gender as a developmental process is central to the processing of traumatic experiences as well as providing the central framework for reconstituting notions of the self and the social world after surviving torture.”

Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, DeJesus learned of York’s graduate diploma in migration and refugee studies while searching for graduate studies programs that focused on forced migration and refugee studies. He will finalize the last of his MES requirements in January and plans to continue his research in the department of geography where he has been admitted into the PhD program.

“In the future, I hope to be a professor of human geography and forced migration/refugee studies, as well as working with the human services sector to improve approaches to marginalized and devalued people,” he said. “I hope to also work with UNICEF in the future, as well as teach abroad in the Middle East and Mediterranean region.”