We talk about boys and men being raped in conflict zones, but we don't listen enough

“The crippling repercussions of rape in war are devastating for women, but our sons and brothers who are victims also suffer in silence.” - UN (Roberto Schmidt, AFP)

“The crippling repercussions of rape in war are devastating for women, but our sons and brothers who are victims also suffer in silence.” - UN (Roberto Schmidt, AFP)

Sexual violence is a tactic of war, used to humiliate, dominate and instil fear. Although the focus has largely been on women and girls, 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. Victims are silenced by the fear of social ignominy and risk being ostracised from their communities should they report that they were sexually violated. This is probably one of the reasons that propels warring parties to use this tactic.

Sexual violence against men and boys includes anal and oral rape, genital torture, castration and coercion to rape others. Many of these acts are seen as emasculating and, although many male victims are willing to give accounts of what they witnessed, they are less likely to express what they experienced.

This problem is compounded by destructive cultural stereotypes that view men as sexually dominant and women as submissive. Male victims who have been subjected to any form of penetration risk being labelled “less manly” or, in some contexts, homosexual. 

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

First is the limited or 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 who live in western Uganda were victims of sexual violence. Most of these men were not willing to disclose this, leading 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 globe.

The second reason is an inability among those who work with victims to identify male victims of sexual violence such as investigators in the criminal justice system and aid workers, many of whom are not trained to deal with this issue. 

In reports of commissions of inquiry and investigative bodies alluding to sexual violence against men, testimonies of survivors are often recorded as acts of torture.

These crimes further give rise to complex problems that need attention. For example, some male victims end up becoming perpetrators of sexual violence against other boys or men. 

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. 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.

Reporting, especially in places such as refugee camps, would promote the development and implementation of mechanisms to address the many effects of sexual violence, including psychosocial 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.

Adequate reporting can provide the necessary evidence for a shift in policy and legislative frameworks, which largely fail to protect men. 

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 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 in 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. 

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.    

But 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. 

The Extraordinary African Chambers in the courts of Senegal recently found the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, guilty of, among other things, rape.

Important precedents and foundations have been laid for addressing sexual violence against males.

The international community has recognised that boys and men are also victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Another example is the Rwanda tribunal’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 Rwanda tribunal’s judgment in the Jean-Paul Akayesu genocide case affirmed that, in the prosecution of rape, emphasis is shifting away from victims having to prove an absence of consent and towards 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 victim’s gender — the fight against sexual and gender-based violence as a whole is advanced. — ISS Today

Allan Ngari is a researcher in the transnational threats and international crime division of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.



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