Central Africa: Invisible Victims - Sexual Violence Against Men in the Great Lakes

28 June 2012

More acknowledgement and support for male victims of sexual violence in the DRC's conflict are urgently needed.

According to recent studies, 48 women are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the country has been ranked as the second most dangerous to be a woman in the world. Gender-based violence in the region has become widespread and there has been a proliferation of non-governmental organisations and donor efforts to aid the plight of female victims.

Much less attention is being paid, however, to male victims of rape.

Male victims

Like women, men are also targeted and suffer sexual violence. This issue, however, has received considerably less publicity and examination. There are also few organisations set up to help male victims, the stigma around men who have been raped remains particularly strong in societies across the world, and the problem receives relatively meagre discussion amongst governments, aid agencies and human rights organisations.

This is perhaps surprising given that sexual violence against men has been documented in conflicts as far and wide as Yugoslavia, Iraq and El Salvador and that it is often widespread. One third of the male combatants in Liberia's civil war, for example, reported suffering some form of sexual abuse; 21% of the tortured Sri Lankan Tamil males receiving care in London claimed to have experienced sexual violence; and in El Salvador in the 1980s, 76% of male political prisoners were allegedly victims of sexual torture.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of male victims in the DRC and Great Lakes Region as of yet, but whispers that sexual violence is being used against boys and men as well as girls and women are growing louder though the issue remains under-reported and under-examined.

African masculinities

As with sexual violence against women, sexual violence against men is also occurring amidst conflict in the DRC and, according to some, is also being used as a weapon of war.

In the traditionally patriarchal societies of the DRC and more broadly in much of Africa, men are perceived culturally to be the providers, protectors and carers for their communities and families, and are considered to represent the virility and power of communities - these characteristics are perhaps particularly crucial in times of uncertainty and conflict.

Sexual violence against men is seen as a means to disempower men and also thus undermine the strength of the community. Male rape can symbolically signal a community's powerlessness as its protectors are perceived to be emasculated and unable to defend themselves and by extension their families and kin.

Male rape also disrupts and destroys communities in that the stigma attached to being a male victim of rape often leads men to be ostracised. Symbolically-speaking, sexual violence against men also carries with it connotations of feminisation, homosexualisation and the prevention of procreation. For a victim and the community then, rape against men can attacks a group's sense of dignity, security and heterosexuality.

For all these reasons, it is perhaps of little surprise that male victims of rape face significant challenges in speaking out and in accessing care and support. Many people refuse to appreciate the crimes exist and some male victims are ridiculed under the belief that 'real men are not real victims'. There is little professional support for sexually-abused men and care specially adapted to their plight. When one victim visited his local doctor in Uganda, for example, the doctor had no other solution but to offer him a Panadol for his emotional and physical injuries.

A lack of attention

The lack of recognition and reporting of sexual violence against men is in a sense self-propelling. The stigma attached to male victims discourages them from speaking out, and structures and perceptions that implicitly see sexual violence as being purely directed at women continue to be the norm.

Lara Stemple, for example, finds that among non-governmental organisations dealing with sexual violence around the globe, "only 3% mention the experience of males in their informational materials, typically as a passing reference". More worrying, her study also revealed that the international human rights framework has been failing men since its conception, and that official human rights documents tend to exclude men from protection against sexual abuse.

She writes: "In general, 'sex' refers to the biological categories of male and female, while 'gender' refers to socially and culturally construed notions of masculinity and femininity. But in human rights instruments the term 'gender-based' seems to be limited to social norms that perpetuate discrimination against females, as opposed to the socially constructed expectations ascribed to both males and females."

It is imperative that these invisible victims of war and their plights become fully recognised, and structures need to be put in place to deal with the emotional and physical injuries that men suffer. Increasing acceptance and acknowledgement at all levels may prove difficult, but for the victims, it is crucial and urgent more care and support is offered than a Panadol.

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