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UN Photo, Bangura (r)

Suffering in silence: sexual violence against men in conflict

Karlijn Muiderman | 10 August 2013

A recent UN workshop highlighted the ‘blind spot’ of men and boys as victims of sexual violence in conflict. The workshop went beyond the stigmatization of women as victims and men as perpetrators, putting the spotlight on the latter.

Including men in the security agenda

Sexual violence in conflict is a priority topic for the United Nations, as illustrated by the establishment of the Secretary-General’s Special Representatives’ Office on Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2010 and the March 2013 report on the issue. The report sees sexual violence as indicating an overall failure to advance security in conflict settings. The experiences in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan highlight the correlation between sexual violence and flawed disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and security sector reform programmes.

In practice, however, male-directed sexual violence rarely receives attention in global media and policy, and is even discriminated against in UN policy. Margot Wallström, who was the first Special  Representative (SGSR) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, did not include men in her five-point priority agenda, while her successor, Zainab Hawa Bangura, failed to include men when discussing the issue on BBC’s Hardtalk. Even the March 2013 report mentions men separately. And in July 2013, WHO reports the statistics of violence against women only. This failure has been openly criticized by Alastair Hilton of First Step Cambodia. Hilton, keynote speaker at the UN workshop, has spent his entire career supporting male victims.

By contrast, the July 2013 workshop on Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) placed sexual violence against men in the foreground, and worked on more inclusive approaches. Hosted by the Ugandan NGO Refugee Law Project (RLP), it was the first conference since the SRSG's Office on Sexual Violence in Conflict was set up in 2010. Now, Bangura stated that sexual violence has similar consequences for its male victims as for its female victims: “They, too, experience health complications related to sexual violence in conflict, such as physical injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, psychological stress and trauma."

Sexual violence as a weapon

The information revealed is shocking, as conflicts prove to be a recurring arena for sexual assault. In 2012, Human Rights Watch reported how sexual violence is used as a weapon to humiliate and degrade victims during conflicts situations. Syrian government forces are sexually assaulting both men and women in detention and during home raids, through “rape, penetration with objects, sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, and electroshock and beatings to genitalia”. Furthermore, a recent survey in the Democratic Republic Congo showed that 9% of the male respondents had experienced violence during conflict, and that 75% felt too ashamed to face their families. 

The stigmatization of violated men remains challenging for humanitarian efforts. “They are victims who suffer in silence,” Bangura emphasized. Only a few speak up or get treatment. After all: women are victims, men are perpetrators.

Laws not protecting men

Alastair Hilton and Dr Chris Dolan, director of RLP, said that men feared acts of homophobia and loss of their masculinity. The scope and challenges are much larger than those of female-directed violence: not only is there a lack of empathy for these men, but also a lack of knowledge, legal frameworks and acknowledgement for the situation.

Additionally, many national laws are female-based. Laurel E. Fletcher, professor at Berkeley Law, University of California, and director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, recently worked on a Refugee Law Working Paper  on conflict-related sexual violence against men, a joint project of the IHRLC and RLP. She identifies a wide gap between international frameworks - like the Tribunals and the Rome Statute - and domestic implementation. “The Ugandan rape laws are gender-exclusive and do not provide a workable framework for the classification of crimes of sexual violence perpetrated against men,” says Fletcher. Because Ugandan law solely mentions “women or girls” and “without her consent”, together with other penal provisions it has a paralyzing effect on male victims, preventing them from reporting sexual violence. Again, they are afraid of being prosecuted for same-sex activities. 

Dolan and Hilton therefore advise the international community to focus on prevention, as well as on protection and engaging with these men to overcome their lack of knowledge and the stigmatization of male victims. This means educating not only practitioners in local conflict settings, but also asylum seekers overseas, as - according to RLP - the number of cases of sexual violation are higher among refugees. Furthermore, the UN report calls for more monitoring of commitments during conflict. Generating more data enables pressure to be exerted on perpetrators, and facilitates medical and social services for survivors. At all levels, from global to national to personal, awareness of the scope and urgency of action needs to be raised. Women and men should be seen [and treated as equals.  

Photo credit main picture: UN Photo, Bangura (r)