Ignoring Male Victims of Sexual Violence in Conflict Is Short-sighted and Wrong

Policy responses to sexual violence in conflict focus almost exclusively on its effect on women and girls. But there are many male victims, and they need support and assistance.

Expert comment Published 10 January 2019 Updated 6 September 2019 3 minute READ

Major Héloïse Goodley

Former Army Chief of General Staff Visiting Research Fellow, International Security Programme

Congolese soldiers in 2008. A study in the Democratic Republic of Congo reported that a quarter of men in conflict affected areas had experienced sexual violence. Photo: Getty Images.

Congolese soldiers in 2008. A study in the Democratic Republic of Congo reported that a quarter of men in conflict affected areas had experienced sexual violence. Photo: Getty Images.

Sexual violence against men and boys in conflict remains largely hidden and ignored, neglected in terms of recognition, resources and policy provision, despite being documented in nearly every armed conflict in which sexual violence is committed. This silence is a result of under-reporting, the prioritization of women and girls, and international policy frameworks, stemming from the United Nations, that structurally discriminate against male survivors of sexual violence.

Failure to address the suffering of male victims has profound consequences for the survivor, his family and his community – an outcome that makes sexual violence such a potent weapon in war. Furthermore, their exclusion from assistance and support, and near absence from judicial recourse, compounds the injustice experienced by male survivors. A more robust and dedicated commitment to men and boys as victims of sexual violence in conflict is needed.

It is commonly cited that women and girls are disproportionately the victims of sexual violence in conflict, but this view is increasingly coming under challenge. Over the last two decades, a growing body of evidence has documented the prevalence of sexual violence against men and boys in a wide variety of conflict settings, indicating that numbers of male victims are significantly higher than initially presumed. For example, in Liberia, a survey found that a third of male ex-combatants had experienced sexual violence, while a similar study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo reported that a quarter of men in conflict affected areas had experienced sexual violence.

Men are especially vulnerable in certain conflict situations, such as during detention, when forcibly recruited, in refugee or internally displaced persons camps, and during military operations in civilian areas.

In Sri Lanka more than a fifth of Tamil men detained in the conflict reported being sexually abused, forced to rape each other for the entertainment of their captors. Similarly, 76 per cent of political prisoners in El Salvador in the 1980s reported experiences of sexual torture, and during the Bosnian war in the 1990s almost 5,000 men held in detention camps outside Sarajevo were raped. More recently, American soldiers forced detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to conduct group masturbation and homosexual acts.

To most people sexual violence is associated with the rape of women, and it is often assumed that it takes the same form against men. But sexual violence has many manifestations. In both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, genital torture and forced sterilization through castration were used to ethnically cleanse men and boys. During the Rape of Nanking in 1938, men were sodomized, forced to perform sexual acts and commit incest. And the notion of ‘rape plus’, where rape carries additional consequences, such as the transmission of HIV/AIDS, has been documented by male survivors of rape in Kosovo.

There is a general misconception that men are immune from sexual violence, owing to gender stereotypes of women as weak and therefore victims, while men are either the powerful protector or perpetrators of violence. The stereotype of traditional masculinity is inconsistent with the position of victimhood, leading many to believe a man, unlike a woman, should have been able to protect himself. Many doctors, aid workers and other responders discount the possibility of men being victims (and women potentially being perpetrators).

The extreme shame and stigma surrounding the issue, causes many victims to remain silent, while those who do present often mask their experiences in the more masculine language of ‘torture’ rather than ‘rape’. Furthermore, in many countries the domestic legal framework does not recognize men as potential victims of sexual violence, where legal definitions of rape only apply to females. And in countries where same-sex acts are illegal, survivors who come forward risk criminalization and homophobic backlash.

The UK-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2106, adopted in 2013, was the first to explicitly mention men and boys as victims of sexual violence in conflict, but fell far short of a call to action. The resolution still concentrates on women and girls as ‘disproportionately’ affected by sexual violence, providing only a tentative acknowledgement to men and boys. Men and boys are omitted altogether from the operative paragraphs presenting the call for action.

Not only is this claim that women and girls are disproportionately affected an unsubstantiated assumption but acknowledging only the suffering of one gender is ethically wrong, and impedes our understanding of sexual violence in conflict as a whole.

Resolution 2106 is one of eight resolutions in the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda, which provides the framework for addressing conflict-related sexual violence. And herein lies the problem. While the framework for addressing such violence lies within the Women, Peace and Security agenda, men will continue to be structurally discriminated against as victims.

For example, in UN field missions, the appointed lead for Women, Peace and Security matters, including sexual violence, is the women’s protection adviser. This not only excludes men from responses to sexual violence in conflict, but also perpetuates the idea that sexual violence is only a women’s issue, reinforcing the stereotype that only women are victims. For male victims to be brought to the fore, conflict related sexual violence needs to be discussed separate from Women, Peace and Security.

The acknowledgement of male victims should not be in opposition to women. Sexual violence is just as much a men’s issue as it is women’s, but the current international framework, in its exclusion of men as victims, is also limiting their inclusion as advocates. Fully recognizing male victims will not only bring much needed support and assistance, but mobilize men in addressing the causes and consequences of sexual violence in conflict as a whole, benefitting both men and women. Ignoring it shuts out a vital partner in tackling sexual violence as a weapon of war.