Today, sexual violence in times of conflict is considered one of the most traumatic and egregious human rights violations. The consequences of sexual violence are deep, that they have the power to destroy individuals and tear communities apart (Nguyen, 2014). While UNSC Resolution 2106 (2013) recognizes that men and boys can be victims of sexual violence, in practice, policy initiatives and programmatic approaches have been based on the misguided assumptions that victims of sexual violence are almost exclusively female. Even when male victims are acknowledged, it is done so in passing, resulting in the minimization of the problem (Carpenter, 2006). The recent recognition of male-directed sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings presents us with a unique opportunity to widen the debate on ways to address sexual violence against civilians in post-conflict settings and to recognize male survivors’ needs as a public health and international security issue worldwide (SVRI, 2011). While some of the content of this paper are explicit and disturbing, it has become necessary to dissect the open secrets of war.
Over the last two decades, sexual violence against men has been noted in several armed conflicts, including Burundi, Croatia, Liberia, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. Data shows that between 1998-2008 alone, male-directed sexual violence was reported in over 25 conflict-affected countries. Since then reports of sexual violence against men has emerged from major conflicts in Libya, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic (Sivakumaran, 2007; Dolan, 2014). Sexual violence against men and boys- including rape, enforced rape (in which men are forced to rape or perform other sexual acts against other men), sexual and physical torture such as castration and other forms of genital violence, sexual humiliation such as enforced nudity and enforced masturbation often accompanied by sexual psychological torture and threats, forced incest and sexual slavery is a pervasive feature of armed conflicts worldwide. In some instances, sexual violence against men can be committed with the express intent of causing the victim’s death (Glassborow, 2008; Lewis, 2009) while in others, it is committed with the express intention of transmitting harmful sexual diseases such as HIV/AIDS (Sivakumaran, 2007).
While the scope and extent of sexual violence against men is unclear, a growing body of anecdotal evidence shows that male-directed sexual violence can occur in any form of conflict and in any cultural context (Russell, 2008). In Afghanistan, the culture of ‘bacha baazi’ (directly translated as “boy for play”) involves men who collectively exploit, enslave and/or rape boys. Young boys are forced to dress in female clothes for the entertainment of other men and are eventually sold to the highest bidder or shared sexually amongst wealthy or politically influential Afghan men including former warlords and government officials (Jones, 2015). In Sri Lanka, male victims of sexual violence have reported being raped anally, often with the use of foreign instruments or forced to perform fellatio or masturbate soldiers or other victims for entertainment (Sivakumaran, 2007). In former Yugoslavia, numerous reports found that victims were forced to bite each other’s testicles off. In addition, cases emerged in which men were held at gunpoint and forced to perform sexual assaults on others, including on family members, others were raped using objects like police truncheons or sticks (UNSCR, 1994). Deliberate genital violence and mutilation through beatings and electroshock in order to prevent reproduction were reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Northern Ireland (Sivakumaran, 2007). Reports of mass rape by multiple perpetrators have been reports in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Dolan, 2014; Gettleman, 2009).
Aside from being victimized, male victims of sexual violence are often unprotected by national laws. Up to 90% of male victims of conflict-related sexual violence are from countries that offer no protection for men. 63 countries acknowledge only female victims of rape and 70 states criminalize men who report being raped and in 28 countries, only males (Nguyen, 2014; Dolan, 2014). Indeed, “not only do these frameworks make justice for male victims an impossibility in many countries, they can actively deter first-instance reporting to police and service providers by male victims” (Dolan, 2014:5). Men suffer a myriad of physical consequences such as reproductive health issues, genital and rectal injuries and sexually transmitted diseases (Tewksbury, 2007). They may experience trauma, feelings of shame, confusion, guilt and isolation. They are likely to have suicidal thoughts and even attempt to commit suicide (SVRI, 2011). They often express hostility and in some instances can even become abusive towards their spouses or children in efforts to reaffirm their masculinity (Manivannan, 2013).
A general misconception exists that in conflict and post-conflict settings, women are more likely to be displaced or sexually assaulted, and that men are more susceptible to physical violence and forced recruitment. Such assumptions are both difficult to confirm without the compilation of data that includes the experiences of men and women in humanitarian emergencies. More research on scope of sexual violence, its perpetrators and its victims in order to build a reliable quantitative and qualitative evidence base is needed. Sensitization and public awareness campaigns can be used a method to encourage reporting, identification and punishment of sexual violence against men (Manivannan, 2013). In addition, revised training needs to be provided for all humanitarian, peacekeeping and developmental actors on gender-inclusive and gender-sensitive approaches to responding and preventing sexual violence. Men’s needs for culturally sensitive medical assistance, psychosocial support and reintegration initiatives needs must be addressed in humanitarian programming, including appropriate ways to identify and classify sexual violence against men (Carpenter, 2006). Post conflict-countries should contemplate conducting trials and truth commissions in cooperation with medical and psychosocial interventions. This facilitates reporting and recognition of sexual violence and grants the victim justice by ending impunity. Alongside women, men must be represented in post-conflict and international justice initiatives- and not just as perpetrators (Russell, 2007; Manivannan, 2013). The post-conflict period offers a space to rewrite legislation and review domestic systems so that victims can be afforded access to legal protection and reparations.
Even though both male and female victims of sexual violence experience obstacles in achieving justice, arguably, male victims face even greater challenges than females. These challenges are part of the many reasons that the international community has failed to act affectively to address male sexual violence. Firstly, while no specific definition of gender-based violence has been adopted, definitions in international criminal law, most transitional justice mechanisms and international humanitarian law tend to perpetuate existing gender stereotypes that exclude men as victims and women as perpetrators. Common amongst NGOs, inter-governmental organizations and the victims themselves, these stereotypes only serve to stigmatize men even more and discourage them from reporting crimes committed against them. Under reporting influenced by shame, guilt and emasculation; fear of community rejection and ostracism; and male victims’ misunderstanding of what constitutes sexual assault is arguably one of the biggest challenges to addressing male sexual violence because it creates the illusion that sexual violence seldom experience sexual violence. In addition, medical and mental health professionals, court staff and other stakeholders are not particularly interested in addressing cases of sexual violence (Manivannan, 2013). Victims have reported that they often hold homophobic notions that male victims are gay (Dolan, 2014).
Linked to lack of reporting, under-recognition is another challenge to effective action. Medical and psychosocial professionals and humanitarian workers arwe not appropriately trained to search, identify and classify symptoms of sexual abuse in men. As a result, sexual violence against men is often mis-characterized as physical violence or torture (Sivakumaran, 2007) and profesionals often look for indicators common to women: penetrative rape (Manivannan, 2013). In certain instances, international organizations purposefully do not acknowledge male victims conflict-related sexual violence. The political nature of donor funding from governments or private companies prefer to focus on sexual violence against women. In fact, some NGOs have explicitly stated that their bias for female victims of sexual violence is influenced by their desire to secure and maintain funding (Manivannan, 2013).
Finally, in post-conflict settings, survivors of sexual violence face many challenges to accessing care and gaining justice, further complicated by socio-cultural dynamics such as stigmatization and institutional failures. In the face of weakened state institutions and breakdown in the rule of law, perpetrators of sexual violence are seldom punished by any justice mechanism, leading to a culture of impunity. Impunity is further worsened by lack of reporting and recognition of sexual violence- leading to a vicious cycle of violence and subliminally reinforcing the notion that sexual violence against men is less important (Manivannan, 2010).
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