Men Can Experience Sexual Violence in War Too
The United Nations Security Council formally recognized for the first time that men and boys are targets of sexual violence both in wartime and in post-conflict settings. Resolution 2467, approved on April 23, calls upon UN member countries to strengthen policies to provide help for victims.
As a human-rights lawyer, during the last nine months, I have been documenting cases of conflict-related sexual violence that took place against men and boys in Syria.
As I listened to the open debate at the Security Council recently, I thought about the male survivors who shared their stories with me. These men and boys, who have endured such traumatic experiences, deserve recognition. Their stories need to be heard.
Incidents of genital beating and electrocution, forced nudity, rape with objects, forced witnessing of rape of other detainees are some of the egregious cases that I have documented during my research, echoing previous Human Rights Watch work on torture in Syrian detention facilities.
The specific mention of men and boys in Resolution 2467 reflects growing international attention to sexual violence directed against men and boys in conflict and postconflict settings, including those in detention and actions by nonstate armed groups. Recognition of sexual violence against men and boys by the Security Council is an important step in challenging the shame and stigma surrounding this issue.
In addition to Resolution 2467, the annual report of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres on conflict-related sexual violence has a standalone paragraph recognizing conflict related sexual violence against men and boys in its recommendations section for the first time.
When we talk about conflict-related sexual violence, people immediately think of violence against women and girls, who are disproportionately affected. But this leaves men out of the equation. The fact that men are also targets of sexual violence is hidden because of shame and stigma around masculine vulnerability. The essence of sexual violence against men and boys is to humiliate and degrade them.
The same harmful gender norms that drive this form of violence against women and girls drive it against men and boys, but because of the scale of the problem facing women and girls and the pervasive stereotypes in some countries about masculine invulnerability, male victims of sexual violence have been largely ignored and their needs unmet.
Sexual violence against males has mostly been framed and reported as torture. Sexual violence against men or women can amount to torture, of course. But approaching wartime sexual violence against men and boys only through the lens of torture may obscure the nature of the violence. So this resolution is an important step in challenging taboos that keep men from reporting their experiences and that deny the survivors the assistance they need.
Resolution 2467 says that UN member countries should have policies that provide an appropriate response to male survivors and that challenge cultural assumptions about male invulnerability to sexual violence. It also says that gender should be considered when monitoring and reporting, an important step in addressing underreported cases of violence directed against men and boys.
One of the most significant aspects of the resolution is its survivor-centered approach— regardless of gender. It acknowledges the need for enhanced medical and mental health support and calls on UN member countries to ensure that survivors of sexual violence receive nondiscriminatory access to medical and psychological care based on their needs. Access to services tailored to the needs of survivors is crucial for their reintegration into society.
The resolution also encourages national and local-level leaders to help prevent marginalization and stigmatization of survivors or their families, essential elements for the survivors’ reintegration into society.
At the same time, notwithstanding progress for men and boys, the resolution is a huge setback on sexual and reproductive health. While the draft resolution proposed by Germany included references to sexual and reproductive health care for survivors of sexual violence in conflict, a US threat to veto the resolution unless all references to sexual and reproductive health were removed meant the document was adopted with that language excised. In this fundamental respect, the resolution has failed to uphold a survivor-centered approach.
It is such a disappointment that a resolution that promises progress on a long-neglected area — sexual violence against men and boys in conflict — is tarnished by US insistence on removing even the most basic language on women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Men and boys are understandably reluctant to talk about sexual violence — not only because it means revisiting trauma, but also because of intense stigma around male vulnerability. Yet, sexual violence against men and boys is widespread and recognizing that is a first step toward addressing this scourge.