The Silent Survivors

Lynn Eagle, The Unmentionables' Sexpert

While researching this article, I knew that the available information on sexual violence among refugee men and boys would be less than what can typically be found for sexual violence against women.

What I didn’t anticipate is just how small the pool of literature on the subject would be.

But it happens, a lot. According to what little amount of information I could dig up, the rate to which sexual violence in woman and boys goes underreported is staggering. In fact, a study by the Refugee Law Project in a Ugandan refugee camp indicated that between one in three males had been victims of sexual violence.

Gender based violence in conflict situations is slowly gaining greater attention on a global level, with women and girls taking center stage. However, we have a responsibility to share this attention with men and boys who are victims of sexual violence in conflict situations and the unique situation they face.

According to the few available reports, the reasons that sexual violence against men and boys is greatly underreported is in part due to the cultural stigma and misperceptions that surround masculinity. Further compounding the problem is the entrenched stereotype that men are viewed as sexually dominant to women. People in refugee camps may think that there is no possible way that men can be sexually assaulted for the reason mentioned above. Additionally, in many refugee and host communities, sexual violence against men and boys is conflated with homosexuality.

Because of these misconceptions and negative attitudes, male survivors encounter significant barriers in accessing basic needs.  Those who do seek medical care or counseling are often met with discrimination, emotional violence, and even physical violence. They may be denied or will refuse to access medical care for needs such as life-saving reparative surgery to treat rectal trauma. Men and boys can even fail to secure safe shelter and jobs.

The combination of all these judgments, misconceptions and negative attitudes towards sexual violence experienced by men creates a perpetual cycle of shame, guilt, and fear in the survivor. They end up living in silence, which in turn causes depression, emotional disturbances and family upheaval.

So what can do about it?

Gaining awareness of sexual violence against men and boys in conflict areas is an important first step.

It is imperative that we continue to prioritize research to this vulnerable group. To do this, we need survivors to come forward and report. This is complicated by the fact that there’s limited or total lack of willingness by the survivor to report the crime. 

Priority one - We need to create a culture where they feel comfortable reporting, especially in refugee camps.

Not only would reporting contribute to further research, it would also promote the development and implementation of mechanisms to address the many effects of sexual violence. This means that men and boys could access medical services and psycho-social support without fear, shame or guilt. Reporting would provide the necessary evidence for a shift in policy and legislative frameworks, which largely fail to protect men (based on outdated stereotypes and assumptions) who are survivors of sexual violence.

Secondly, staff need to be identified and trained to help, not hurt, men and boys who are survivors of sexual violence. Additionally, reports have pointed out the fact that even where adequate providers do exist, there is often insufficient funding to pay for care — whether that is a reparative surgery necessary for them to be able to use the toilet again (and restore their dignity), or even smaller basic goods many survivors need, like diapers and soft foods.

It’s a cyclical problem. We need men and boys to report, an increase in reporting would likely garner attention and open up funding for resources to assist. Men will seldom report as the current toxic culture is counter intuitive to do so.

So, how do we break the cycle?