War, rape, and the invisible victims

Originally posted on July 17, 2011

Every month there is a report, essay, or article about how women are raped in war-torn countries, yet few of those reports mention anything about male victims. Male victimization remains a taboo subject in most countries, but more so in many Africa countries, particularly those engaged in war. Many of those cultures place such limits on men that male victims of rape cannot come forward for fear of losing their friends and family. Often the support services that help women will not help men. Should any men come forward, they also risk retaliation from the authorities, especially if the men are refugees.

All of this leads to a woeful lack of accurate data about the frequency of rape against men. It is unfathomable to think that any army that would torture and brutalize a populace would abstain from sexually assaulting men. Regardless of the social stigmas, in war no act of violence is ever used just against one group. There are thousands of boys and men who have been raped and forced to keep it secret because of social stigmas and misandrist policies that deny male victimization.

However, photographer and writer Will Storr provides a glimpse in the horrors that many men face in war-torn countries in Africa. He produced an audio slideshow recounting the stories of several men. He also wrote an article:

One of the few academics to have looked into the issue in any detail is Lara Stemple, of the University of California’s Health and Human Rights Law Project. Her study Male Rape and Human Rights notes incidents of male sexual violence as a weapon of wartime or political aggression in countries such as Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Twenty-one per cent of Sri Lankan males who were seen at a London torture treatment centre reported sexual abuse while in detention. In El Salvador, 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in the 1980s described at least one incidence of sexual torture. A study of 6,000 concentration-camp inmates in Sarajevo found that 80% of men reported having been raped.

I’ve come to Kampala to hear the stories of the few brave men who have agreed to speak to me: a rare opportunity to find out about a controversial and deeply taboo issue. In Uganda, survivors are at risk of arrest by police, as they are likely to assume that they’re gay – a crime in this country and in 38 of the 53 African nations. They will probably be ostracised by friends, rejected by family and turned away by the UN and the myriad international NGOs that are equipped, trained and ready to help women. They are wounded, isolated and in danger. In the words of Owiny: “They are despised.”

Because there has been so little research into the rape of men during war, it’s not possible to say with any certainty why it happens or even how common it is – although a rare 2010 survey, published in theJournal of the American Medical Association, found that 22% of men and 30% of women in Eastern Congo reported conflict-related sexual violence. As for Atim, she says: “Our staff are overwhelmed by the cases we’ve got, but in terms of actual numbers? This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Storr goes on to tell Jean Paul’s story. Jean Paul’s father was accused of aiding the enemy and was killed. Jean Paul ran, but was caught by the army. He was raped nearly a dozen times the first night and every night, along with several other men, for over a week. He managed to hide one day under the roots of a tree, and remained there until the searchers gave up. Jean Paul was so violently raped that even with medical treatment he still bleeds when he walks.

That is the reality of rape against men and boys. People avoid talking about what boys and men actually go through. No one wants to hear it and few would believe it, yet Storr gives an account of the kind of rape men and boys face endure. Fair warning, it is graphic: 

Men aren’t simply raped, they are forced to penetrate holes in banana trees that run with acidic sap, to sit with their genitals over a fire, to drag rocks tied to their penis, to give oral sex to queues of soldiers, to be penetrated with screwdrivers and sticks. [Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project  gender officer Salome] Atim Atim has now seen so many male survivors that, frequently, she can spot them the moment they sit down. “They tend to lean forward and will often sit on one buttock,” she tells me. “When they cough, they grab their lower regions. At times, they will stand up and there’s blood on the chair. And they often have some kind of smell.”

Keep in mind, this is not the just immediately following the rapes, but several weeks or months after the assaults. When people talk about sexual violence against males, they avoid any other kind of assault than penis-in-rectum rape. Even then, people tend to present a sanitized version of it, as if rape against males is only rape because it is unwanted, not because it can and often does result in lots of damage.

To make matters worse, quite often the wives of these men will leave them if they discover their husbands were raped. Jean Paul mentioned that he feared telling his brother why he must eat soft foods because he did not want his brother to abandon him. In these cultures, men can only be strong. They cannot cry or show fear. They certainly cannot be victimized. Should that happen, they are no longer men and no one in their community will support them.

But perhaps the worst element is that human rights organizations ignore male victims. As Storr reported:

The research by Lara Stemple at the University of California doesn’t only show that male sexual violence is a component of wars all over the world, it also suggests that international aid organisations are failing male victims. Her study cites a review of 4,076 NGOs that have addressed wartime sexual violence. Only 3% of them mentioned the experience of men in their literature. “Typically,” Stemple says, “as a passing reference.”

Stemple’s findings on the failure of aid agencies is no surprise to [RLP British director Dr. Chris] Dolan. “The organisations working on sexual and gender-based violence don’t talk about it,” he says. “It’s systematically silenced. If you’re very, very lucky they’ll give it a tangential mention at the end of a report. You might get five seconds of: ‘Oh and men can also be the victims of sexual violence.’ But there’s no data, no discussion.”

As part of an attempt to correct this, the RLP produced a documentary in 2010 called Gender Against Men. When it was screened, Dolan says that attempts were made to stop him. “Were these attempts by people in well-known, international aid agencies?” I ask.

“Yes,” he replies. “There’s a fear among them that this is a zero-sum game; that there’s a pre-defined cake and if you start talking about men, you’re going to somehow eat a chunk of this cake that’s taken them a long time to bake.” Dolan points to a November 2006 UN report that followed an international conference on sexual violence in this area of East Africa.

“I know for a fact that the people behind the report insisted the definition of rape be restricted to women,” he says, adding that one of the RLP’s donors, Dutch Oxfam, refused to provide any more funding unless he’d promise that 70% of his client base was female. He also recalls a man whose case was “particularly bad” and was referred to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. “They told him: ‘We have a programme for vulnerable women, but not men.'”

Margot Wallström, the UN special representative of the secretary-general for sexual violence in conflict, objected to Dolan and Stemple’s position, stating that “the focus remains on women because they are ‘overwhelmingly’ the victims.”

Yet the above statistics suggest that men are likely raped as often as women. Again, it is unlikely that anyone who would brutalize a populace would only rape women. By deliberately framing sexual violence as something that can only happen to women, human rights groups perpetuate the violence against men and boys, forcing them to not only suffer in silence, but to remain silent to avoid the wrath of their family, community, the authorities, and military forces.

The glaring unasked question is why ignore male victims? Who benefits from pretending that no men and boys are raped? How does refusing services to boys and men literally bleeding as they walk do anything to solve the conflicts in those regions?

It is tempting to lay this at the feet of feminists. To be certain, feminism plays a role in ignoring male victims. One would be hard-pressed to find feminist literature that treats males as legitimate, equal victims of rape. More often than not sexual violence against males is framed as “male rape”, implying that it is something other than real rape. Few feminist-run organizations reach out to male victims, and when they do they often still treat male victims as second-class.

However, that is not the only factor. The other is that people are so used to violence against men and entrenched in the notion that men cannot be raped that no one really cares. Apathy is a powerful force, and Storr ends his article with an astounding example of it:

As I leave Uganda, there’s a detail of a story that I can’t forget. Before receiving help from the RLP, one man went to see his local doctor. He told him he had been raped four times, that he was injured and depressed and his wife had threatened to leave him. The doctor gave him a Panadol.

Panadol is another name for Tylenol.

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12 thoughts on “War, rape, and the invisible victims

  1. Why the heck do we have to believe that men are as likely to be raped as women in wars, when I dare say I doubt that has ever been the case anywhere? That there are thousands or even tens of thousands of unhelped male rape victims, in say, the Congo, I do not doubt and that’s a horrible tragedy, and even more so in that it’s often silenced. And heck, I’ll even say it doesn’t particularly matter that male rapes might be one percent of female ones in the same area. A rape victim is a rape victim. But – but – but! If no one is even helping male war refugees or trying to stop forcible induction of boys as young as 7 or 8 into armies – if people can’t even care THAT much – what makes you think they are going to care more if boys are raped? Why the numbers game? In the unlikely event that male armies consist of rapists who want to rape males to the exact same proportion as they want to rape females (wow, assuming these guys are het, that REALLY removes sex from rape) what makes you think that organizations who don’t think that a males life over the age of 10 to 12 is worth anything are going to give a darn?

    Forgive the slight rant, but I’m frustrated. I don’t see how this information will help – and yet it should! One of the saddest pieces of writing I have ever read is :http://www.feministcritics.org/blog/2011/01/20/a-tale-of-two-atrocities-noh/

    Male victims of pretty much anything are erased in terms of helping organizations. Until that changes, no one is going to give a crap less about these male victims of rape. 😦

  2. When we live in a world filled with so many religious groups and people, it’s a shame that most ignore male rape victims. A lot of people just don’t care about helping anyone but themselves and their loved ones. It’s selfishness. Someone may walk by a couple fighting on a street and no one would break them apart. They’d just walk by, and those who stay and watch are jerks.

  3. Pingback: More on war, rape, and the invisible victims « Toy Soldiers

  4. Rape is never about sex, it is about dominance and humiliation, common wartime weapons against both genders.

  5. “Rape is never about sex, it is about dominance and humiliation, common wartime weapons against both genders.”

    I agree there, Amy. Rape as domination is an even stronger explanation in war.

  6. Pingback: War’s invisible victims | Toy Soldiers

  7. Pingback: G8 announces initiative to tackle sexual violence in conflict | Toy Soldiers

  8. Pingback: Male rape victims in Uganda speak out | Toy Soldiers

  9. Pingback: The last human rights taboo? | Toy Soldiers

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