What about the Men? The Silence on Male Victims of Sexual Violence in Conflict

By: Ebba Lekvall[1]


In June this year, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office hosted a ‘Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’, co-chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelia Jolie. The event brought together Government representatives from over 120 countries, over 1,000 experts, faith leaders, youth organizations and representatives of civil society and international organizations. With the hash tag #TimetoAct they demanded an end to sexual violence in conflict. While this summit is certainly to be applauded for taking the issue of sexual violence seriously, as it is a topic that has since long been considered taboo, and for proposing practical steps to end impunity (see for example the proposed ‘International Protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict’[2]), one question that I kept asking myself during the three day event was “what about the men?”

In the last few years the issue of sexual violence in conflict has received much attention from the international community. Sexual violence as a ‘tactic of war’ was formally recognized as an issue critical to international peace and security by UN Security Council Resolution 1820[3], and in 2010 the office of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict was created.[4] However, until now most of the attention has focused on female victims, and male victims of sexual violence in conflict have been of only marginal concern to international policy.[5] Despite this lack of attention, however, men and boys have long been targeted for sexual violence in particular and gender-specific ways that deserve the attention of the human rights community.[6]

The issue of sexual violence against men in conflict is severely and chronically underreported. One explanation is that male victims are often unwilling to come forward, due to shame, guilt and fear. In countries where homosexuality is criminalized, survivors are often faced with an assumption that they have engaged in consensual homosexual activity, and can themselves face criminal charges. Another factor is the reticence of civil society to recognize that male victims even exist.[7] While sexual violence against women has been at the forefront of the work of many NGOs, they have been particularly slow to address the issue of male victims. In fact, a report from 2002 found that of 4,076 NGOs that focused on conflict-related and politically-motivated sexual violence only 3% mentioned male victims. A quarter of these NGOs explicitly denied that male-on-male violence was a serious problem.[8]

The lack of attention paid to the sexual abuse of men in conflict is particularly disturbing given the extent of the problem. In recent years sexual violence against men has been documented as a feature of conflicts in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, the former Yugoslavia, and many other countries. For example, 21% of Sri Lankan Tamil males said they had experienced sexual abuse while in detention, and a study of 6,000 concentration camp detainees in Sarajevo found that 80% of the males had been raped.[9] A 2010 study in the DRC reported 23.6% of men having been subject to sexual violence, with 64.5% of the sexual violence being conflict-related.[10]

Despite the grave and widespread nature of sexual violence against men and boys, the international community seems reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the problem and to properly address the issue. The international instruments that contain the most comprehensive and meaningful definitions of sexual violence prima facie exclude men, reflecting and embedding the assumption that sexual violence is a phenomenon relevant only to women and girls.[11] ‘Gender-based violence’ is too often associated exclusively with violence against women, whereas when it is acknowledged that men are also victims of sexual violence it is most often only mentioned in passing. This was evident at the recent Summit.

While Ms. Jolie did mention men as potential victims of sexual violence in conflict,[12] the overall tone of the Summit was that this was a conference to end conflict-related sexual violence against women. William Hague in his opening statement said: “We want to encourage men to speak out, we want to encourage men to speak out – to agree with us that it is only a weak or inadequate man who abuses women”,[13] thus reinforcing the view that men are perpetrators of sexual violence and women are victims. The UK government also made a big announcement of pledging support for victims of sexual violence in conflict, but the bulk of this support, £4.25 million, is to be donated to the UN Trust Fund on violence against women. Commenting on the commitment, International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: “[r]ape and sexual violence destroy the lives of countless women and their families”.[14]

Any serious effort to end sexual violence in conflict is of course both necessary and commendable. Given the fact that women and girls are often discriminated against, marginalized in society, and more often victims of these crimes it may even be legitimate to let women be the primary focus of attention. However, calling for an end to sexual violence in conflict while solely talking about female victims only serves to further marginalize male victims and confirm the notion that what they are suffering is not in fact sexual violence. Furthermore, when we as women had to fight for decades, and still do, to get noticed and to get the issue on the table, how can we not make room for other victims just because they happen to be men?

It is indeed ‘Time to Act’ – it’s time to act for all victims of sexual violence in conflict, both women and men.


[1] The author is a Co-Founder of the Oxford Burma Alliance. This post originally appeared on the University of Essex Human Rights Centre Blog’: http://blogs.essex.ac.uk/hrc/2014/07/13/what-about-the-men-the-silence-on-male-victims-of-sexual-violence-in-conflict/

[2] Available at: http://blogs.essex.ac.uk/hrc/2014/07/13/what-about-the-men-the-silence-on-male-victims-of-sexual-violence-in-conflict/.

[3] UN Security Council, Resolution 1820, S/RES/1820 (2008), 19 June 2008.

[4] Rosemary Grey and Laura J. Shepherd, ’”Stop Rape Now?”: Masculinity, Responsibility, and Conflict-related Sexual Violence’, 16(1) Men and Masculinities 115 (2013), 116.

[5] Ibid.

[6] R. Charli Carpenter, ’Recognizing Gender-Based Violence Against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations’, 37 Security Dialogue 83 (2006), 94.

[7] Tom Hennessy and Felicity Gerry, ‘International Human Rights Law and Sexual Violence Against Men in Conflict Zones’, Halsbury’s Law Exchange, October 2012, 7-8.

[8] Ibid, 8.

[9] Hennessy and Gerry, 6.

[10] Grey and Shepherd, 121.

[11] Lara Stemple, ’Male Rape and Human Rights’, 60 Hastings Law Journal 605, 618.

[12] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/remarks-at-the-launch-of-the-international-protocol–2.

[13] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretarys-remarks-at-the-opening-of-the-global-summit-fringe–2.

[14] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-pledges-more-support-for-victims-of-sexual-violence-in-war.

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