Men and Boys Are Forgotten Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence, Says ICTJ Report
New York In times of conflict or repression, sexual violence against men and boys is shockingly common. Yet, their experiences tend to remain in the shadows and even be discounted, including in societies taking deliberate steps to uncover wrongdoing and address a painful past. This leaves thousands of male victims with little chance of justice or specialized support.
A new 40-page report from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), When No One Calls it Rape: Addressing Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Transitional Contexts, looks at how sexual violence against men and boys has been handled by different official efforts to acknowledge human rights abuses of the past and pursue accountability around the world including by truth commissions, courts and victim reparation programs.
The report is intended to help policy makers and practitioners recognize male victims of sexual violence and respond more effectively to their needs and rights through transitional justice initiatives.
“Sexual violence against men and boys is such a taboo subject that it is rarely reported to authorities or even seen as abuse,” explains Kelli Muddell, director of ICTJ’s Gender Justice Program and co-author of the report. “Even when it is reported, it is often misclassified as physical harm or abuse, negating its sexual dimension.”
According to the report, the majority of official efforts to examine and address massive human rights violations have failed to properly identify male victims of sexual violence as a population requiring special attention. For example, in Sierra Leone, the truth commission tasked with examining nearly 10 years of a brutal armed conflict only reported on sexual slavery and sexual torture committed against women and girls. This meant that male victims, who were left out of findings, later became ineligible for reparations from a government program for those violations.
More recently, the International Criminal Court considered a case involving young Kikuyu men who were forcibly circumcised by members of another ethnic group during Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election crisis. The court found that not all acts targeting sexual organs are necessarily sexual in nature, obscuring the very basis for the crime: using a sexual act to dominate victims.
“As we see in the Kenya case and elsewhere, at the root of all sexual violence is the exertion of power and the manipulation of gender roles,” says Muddell. “With male victims this can play out differently. When masculinity is linked with dominance, authority and power, castrating or raping a man is seen as a way of disempowering him and by extension his family, community and ethnic group.”
Discriminatory definitions in rape laws can be another obstacle to male victims receiving justice. For example, in Chile, rape was defined as a crime against females until 1999, barring men who had been subjected to sexual violence during the Pinochet dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990, from being recognized. Worse, in Uganda, which is slowly making efforts to deal with its violent past, rape is still defined exclusively as a crime against a woman or girl.
Although gaps remain, some criminal prosecutions, including at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, have identified a broader range of acts as sexual crimes. And the Khmer Rouge court in Cambodia has used gender-neutral language in its description of “forced marriage,” a crime in which government authorities under the Khmer Rouge forced single people in their twenties or early thirties to wed and consummate their marriage. This has allowed both men and women to be recognized as victims.
“There are some clear lessons from past experiences that need to be applied if male victims of sexual violence are to be recognized and rehabilitated,” said Amrita Kapur, co-author of the report. “It starts with the basic recognition that it is possible for males to be victims of sexual violence and that the impact on them is no less serious than for women and girls.”
“It’s an issue that requires us to listen more closely to men’s voices, and to their silences, too.”
The report includes a set of recommendations for truth commissions, criminal courts and national governments on how to improve the identification and response to male victims of sexual violence.