The last human rights taboo?

Originally posted on July 2, 2013

The Guardian published an article titled Male rape: the last human rights taboo. Rich McEachran questions why NGOs pay so little attention to sexual violence against men and boys despite growing concern for the problem:

There is a disconcerting disparity between how various aid organisations and NGOs are dealing, or are failing to deal, with the issue. On a macro-level, organisations may not be aware of what they’re looking for and may not see how male rape fits into the bigger picture. It may come as a surprise that the UN only changed its own definition of rape to cover male victims, in 2011; this followed the publication of an article in The Observer.

NGOs at a micro-level, some of whom are already working with male survivors – the Refugee Law Project for instance – face major obstacles, such as acquiring funding and carrying out field work or accessing survivors in remote areas. The author of the aforementioned article spoke to Chris Dolan, the director of RLP, who claimed that one of the project’s donors refused to provide future funding if 70% of the client base wasn’t female.

Despite the fear of losing funding, the pervasiveness of the problem (academic Lara Stemple writes that male sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war from Chile to Iran, Kuwait to Uganda) means that the humanitarian community needs to challenge perceptions of rape, improve understanding and create awareness.

Yet that may be difficult to do given the gendered focus on sexual violence. As McEachran notes in the article, many NGOs use gendered language to refer to victims of sexual violence. Even in instances in which NGOs acknowledge the existence of abused men and boys, little of their literature mentions those experiences.

The other problem with such language is that the organizations often paint males as only perpetrators. That makes it difficult for men and boys to come forward as many of them may assume that the service providers will view them as rapists rather than victims.

The article mentioned yet another problem:

[Emily] Cody indicates that an approach to tackling reluctance is not complicated but may take up a lot of resources. “For protection officers this could include recognising physical symptoms of male sexual assault as well as increased sensitisation to gender based violence against men,” she says. “Survivors may initially obfuscate the assault or describe it alongside other acts of violence; part of working with survivors is knowing when to listen and which questions to ask. They may classify their victimisation in different ways, and capturing these narratives will take time.”

This is something I noticed over the years, and something I have and still do engage in. Many male survivors will reframe their sexual assaults as some other type of violence as a means of protecting their masculinity or avoiding admitting that they were sexually violated. This may happen more often in African countries given the cultural focus on masculinity and manhood.

By asking questions and trying to get a clearer picture of what happened, service providers can better understand the types of assaults men and boys experience and the way those men and boys perceive it. This is something that all service providers and law enforcement agencies ought to do, yet few do it.

Mary Finn reported something similar happening in the Atlanta juvenile court system. When the juvenile court decided to ask children brought before it whether they were ever pimped or prostituted, they only asked girls. By failing to screen boys, it is likely that the court missed many chances to save boys from further abuse.

This situation is probably worsened in conflict areas as cultural norms and the general situation make it more likely that abused men and boys will experience more abuse if they do not get help.

While the solutions to this problem are rather simple, they are not easy to implement. One must deal with the funding, the training, and the potential access to these services. It is difficult to do all of that in general, let alone in the middle of a war.

One must also combat the political agendas and misandry inherent in the refusal to acknowledge or assist male survivors. The gendered language serves a specific political purpose, and those who use it will not drop it even if means more men and boys will be raped as a result.

Finally, one must combat the cultural elements that make it difficult for male survivors to come forward. Will Storr wrote about this several years ago. When men face pubic humiliation and social ostracization for coming forward, they are simply less likely to want to talk. We can do better than telling male rape victims who seek medical help to take a Tylenol.

5 thoughts on “The last human rights taboo?

  1. Seeing people (in this case NGOs) are being prodded by articles in mainstream media gives me hope that change is indeed happening and that it’s going to accellerate.

  2. American media tells us that the rape of males is something to be laughed at, all kinds of jokes around about the rape of males.

  3. Pingback: The last human rights taboo? |

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