By James Hallwood.
Reports from Syria of routine rape against men and women is a reminder of the unspoken prevalence of the rape of men and boys in areas of conflict. Yet for the harrowing nature of this, and despite how widespread it is, awareness and support are truly minimal. Often categorised as ‘torture’ rather than ‘rape’, so many men around the world are silent victims of unbelievable acts of sexual cruelty.
Given that rape against males is a regular component of wars across all continents, it is surprising that there has been so little research into this. Dr Lara Stemple of UCLA School of Law has been at the forefront of raising awareness at the prevalence of the sexual abuse of males in war zones and has done much to ask why international institutions are seeing rape as a crime that only affects women.
76% of male political prisoners in 1980’s El Salvador attested to sexual torture, 80% of men in a concentration camp in Sarajevo reported being raped, 21% of men seeking help at a London centre for Sri Lankan torture victims spoke of sexual abuse, 22% of men in Eastern Congo had suffered from sexual violence. A clinic dealing with refugees in Uganda gave the shocking figure that 8 out of 10 women had been raped and 10 out of 10 men had suffered the same crime. Men are routinely raped in Iranian prisons while the disgusting actions by Lynndie England in Abu Ghraib show abuse against men can just as easily be committed by women and the West, no-one has a good record on this.
It is clear that these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Societal stigma is enough to silence many of these men. Just like many female victims of rape, the men who survive these ordeals are often deserted by their spouses. An aid worker helping men recover from rape reported how wives of victims responded:
“They ask me: ‘So now how am I going to live with him? As what? Is this still a husband? Is it a wife?’ They ask, ‘If he can be raped, who is protecting me?’ There’s one family I have been working closely with in which the husband has been raped twice. When his wife discovered this, she went home, packed her belongings, picked up their child and left. Of course that brought down this man’s heart.”
The strong gender roles enforced in many societies make being a male victim of rape all the more taboo: Men fear no longer being perceived as ‘men’.
Abandoned by family and society, many of the male victims of rape are unable to ask for help, not just in dealing with the psychological scars but with the very literal injuries sustained from repeated sexual abuse. Many men are subjected to constant gang rape, penetrated with blunt objects and forced to give oral sex to soldiers. Survivors are often limited to a restricted diet, bleed incessantly and, worse still, fear asking for help in case they are arrested for homosexual behaviour. At this very moment, men are suffering and dying from these horrific injuries in silence.
International institutions should be able to step in where national governments fail, but they have so far seemed reluctant to do so. Dr Stemple applauded United Nations’ Resolution 1325 call to support women and girls in conflict zones but pointed out that much of its work neglects to look at sexual violence against men and boys. Failing to have a gender neutral definition of rape meant that male victims were operationally invisible. After much campaigning this definition was changed, but there is much still to do to change the culture of organisations that deal with rape.
Dr Stemple cites a literature review of 4000+ organisations that deal with rape in war zones: only 3% mention male victims in their informational material, and few are equipped to deal with the particular needs of men who come to them for help.
Across the globe men and women, boys and girls, are victims of the most disgusting sexual crimes imaginable. Few of the victims report this, many face stigma and shame, and the help any of them are offered is usually minimal at best.
It’s time that governments, international bodies, charities and people openly accept– in war zones sexual abuse rarely distinguishes between men and women, our response should likewise be to help all victims of these heinous crimes.
There remains a blanket of silence when it comes to the taboo of male victims of rape. More awareness, more research and more support is needed.
The perpetrators rely on the shame and particular stigma of being a man forcibly subjected to other men, we must break the silence: It’s time to speak up for the men who are raped in war zones.
James Hallwood is Secretary of the Young Fabians.