Male victims of sexual violence: war's silent sufferers

Stigma, shame and destroyed livelihoods are the repercussions of sexual violence against boys and men in conflict situations.

Sexual violence is a tactic of war, used to humiliate, dominate and instil fear. It is also increasingly being used as a tactic of terrorism. While the focus has largely been on women and girls as victims of sexual violence, boys and men are equally at risk.

As Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, pointed out: ‘The crippling repercussions of rape in war are devastating for women, but our sons and brothers who are victims also suffer in silence.’ What distinguishes crimes of sexual violence from other types of crime committed in conflict is the additional burden of stigma, shame and guilt.

No form of violation is more personal; and victims are often internally conflicted as to what exactly happened to them. This is likely one of the reasons that propels warring parties to use this tactic. Victims are silenced by the fear of social ignominy, and risk being ostracised from their communities should they report that they were sexually violated.

Victims are often willing to talk about what they witnessed, but not what they experienced

Sexual violence against men and boys takes on a range of heinous acts, including anal and oral rape, genital torture, castration and coercion to rape others. Many of these acts are seen as emasculating, and while many male victims are willing to give accounts of what they witnessed, they are less likely to express what they themselves had experienced in conflict.

This problem is compounded by destructive cultural stereotypes where men are viewed as sexually dominant and women as submissive. Male victims who’ve been subjected to any form of penetration therefore risk being labelled as ‘less manly’ – or in some contexts – as homosexual. 

Homosexuality is criminalised in 33 African states, which means that fear of prosecution further discourages men from reporting such crimes. Underreporting makes it difficult to develop strategies to combat these types of crime. Two main factors are to blame.

First, as mentioned above, is the limited or total lack of willingness by the victim to report the crime. According to a 2014 report, one in three adult male refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who live in western Uganda are victims of sexual violence. Most of these men were not willing to disclose this, but it has led to devastating health consequences and destructive social behaviour. Victims are likely to develop an aversion to healthy sexual relations with their spouses, and this causes tension in the familial context. This phenomenon occurs in conflict zones across the African continent and globally.

The second main factor for underreporting is an inability among those who work with victims to identify male victims of sexual violence. This includes parties such as investigators in the criminal justice system and aid workers, who often lack the training to deal specifically with this issue. In reports of commissions of inquiry and investigative bodies alluding to the sexual violence against men, testimonies of survivors are, for example, often recorded as acts of torture, but not explicitly as instances of sexual violence against men.

Legislative frameworks largely fail to protect men who experience this abuse

Underreporting is therefore a significant obstacle to effective intervention, and severely limits our understanding of the issue. These crimes further give rise to complex related problems that need serious attention.

For example, as a direct result of sexual trauma, some male victims end up becoming perpetrators of sexual violence against other boys and men. Furthermore, little is known about how best to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate former combatants into society. This includes child soldiers who have been victims of sexual violence.

There is a dearth of research on conflict-related sexual violence against boys as a particularly vulnerable group. Conducting such research may be fraught with ethical and methodological challenges, but reporting these crimes is an essential starting point to build up an evidence base of how many of these crimes are happening, to whom and in which contexts.

Despite the challenges around expressing and hearing the testimony of boys and men who have been victims of conflict-related sexual violence, it is important to encourage reporting – especially in areas like refugee camps. This would promote the development and implementation of mechanisms to address the many effects of sexual violence; including psycho-social and medical support. It would also allow victims to gain access to justice and place the shame of the crime where it belongs: with the perpetrator.

Significantly, adequate reporting can provide the necessary evidence for a shift in policy and legislative frameworks, which largely fail to protect men who experience this form of abuse. The criminal codes of some African states allow male victims to seek redress under charges of sexual assault or indecent assault; but not under a charge of rape. This is simply because the criminal codes fail to defi­ne rape in gender-neutral terms.

Under these laws, the punishment for an offender in cases where the victim is a man or boy is less severe than cases with female victims. This problem is magnified by the lack of national legislation to address mass sexual violations occurring in times of conflict or violence. Conflict-related sexual violence clearly affects both women and men, and states should caution against gender-binary approaches when developing mechanisms to address sexual violence. This is a discriminatory practice, which further violates the rights of victims to equal treatment.    

The criminal codes of many African states fail to define rape in gender-neutral terms

It is not all doom and gloom; there have been advances in the understanding of conflict-related sexual violence in Africa. These have led to investigations and prosecutions at international tribunals and courts – notably the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Recently, the Extraordinary African Chambers in the courts of Senegal found the former president of Chad Hissène Habré of, among other things, rape.

Many of these interventions have focused on sexual violence against women and children in conflict, but important precedents and foundations have been laid for addressing male sexual victimisation.

A few examples include recognition by the international community that boys and men are victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Another example is the ICTR’s best practice manual for the prosecution of sexual violence in post-conflict regions. Also encouraging is the gender-neutral definition of rape in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; and the implementation of these provisions in national laws, such as the South African Criminal Law Amendment Act 32 of 2007

Another noteworthy advance is the recognition of sexual violence as constituent acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICTR’s judgment in the Akayesu case also affirmed that in the prosecution of rape, emphasis is shifting away from victims having to prove an absence of consent towards, instead, having to show the presence of coercion.

More needs to be done to address male sexual victimisation. By tackling all forms of sexual violence – regardless of the gender of the victim – the fight against sexual and gender based violence as a whole is advanced. 

Allan Ngari, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

This ISS Today forms part of a series on gender and security. Also in the series:

Kenyan politics: where have all the women gone?, ISS Today, 24 May 2016

Protectors turned predators, ISS Today, 10 May 2016

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