Sexual Violence in War: Not Just a Women’s Issue

by Emily Winter


Rape is frequently used as a tool of war, perpetrated systematically to destroy families, destabilize communities, and displace populations. Though the majority of victims of conflict-related sexual violence are women and girls, it is becoming increasingly evident that men and boys are being targeted in large numbers, as well. Male survivors of sexual violence comprise a seriously neglected population in great need of medical, psychosocial, and legal services.

Sexual violence affects everyone.The scale of male-directed sexual violence is poorly documented. Little statistical evidence exists on the issue; what information is available is largely anecdotal. However, the few existing quantitative studies suggest male rape in war is a major concern. A 2010 survey in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found nearly one in four male respondents experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, with 65 percent of male survivors having experienced conflict-related sexual violence. In 10 percent of these cases, the perpetrator was female [1].   In a study of 6,000 inmates at a concentration camp in the former Yugoslavia, 80 percent of men reported they had been raped while in detention [2].  Sexual violence against men and boys has been documented in 25 conflict settings in the past decade, occurring in countries across Central and South America, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern and Western Europe [3].

One reason for the paucity of data on sexual violence against men and boys is that male survivors are unlikely to disclose their assault. Low reporting is driven by the extreme stigma associated with male-on-male sexual violence in many societies. Culturally ingrained preconceptions of masculinity, in which males are thought of as strong and powerful protectors and women as effeminate and vulnerable, preclude most male survivors from reporting their assault. The stigma, social rejection and isolation men experience when their rape is disclosed can “re-victimize” survivors, compounding the direct physical and psychological trauma of the actual assault.

The dearth of medical and legal services and outreach directed at men and boy survivors is an additional factor preventing them from reporting their abuse. Despite the general recognition that male-directed sexual violence occurs on a large scale, most organizations working to stop war rape ignore the plight of male survivors entirely. In a 2002 study, only three percent of 4,076 agencies addressing sexual violence in conflict settings even mentioned male victims in their programming or informational materials [4].

Though men and boys comprise a sizable minority of sexual violence survivors, nearly all interventions, laws, and guidelines for responding to sexual violence – from the international scale down to the local level – are directed solely at females.

Discriminatory policies or gaps in legal protection under national and local laws further deter male survivors from reporting or seeking support services. For example, where homosexuality is criminalized, male survivors who disclose their assault may risk being accused of consensual homosexual acts and could face penalization or public shaming – even though rape has nothing to do with sex or sexuality, but rather with power and control.

Nearly 1 out of every 4 men in Eastern DRC has experienced sexual violence in his lifetime.Faced with the threat of discrimination and societal rejection, and low prospects for attaining appropriate physical and mental health care or legal recourse, male survivors suffer in silence. The bodily harm wrought by sexual violence can be severe, leading to pain, disease, and disability. Psychosocial effects of male-directed rape are often debilitating, leaving the survivor unable to actively participate or fill his traditional role in his family, community, or economy. Where the effects are critical, and timely and appropriate services are not provided, death can result from untreated sexually transmitted infections, AIDS complications, physical injuries, or suicide. Male survivors of sexual violence are in acute need of recognition, outreach, and health and legal interventions; yet, these gaps in service continue to be overlooked.

Agencies working to stop sexual violence in conflict must make a greater programmatic effort to recognize and respond to the unique issues of this largely ignored population. Research must be undertaken to strengthen our knowledge of the scale of male-directed sexual violence in conflict, and to identify appropriate and efficacious methods of providing male survivors the medical, psychosocial and legal services they require. And to garner the global funding and support each of these efforts entails, advocacy campaigns fighting for survivors’ rights to medical care, social supports, and justice and reparations must not exclude the needs of male survivors as they have done in the past.

Works Cited

[1] Johnson K, Scott J, Rughita B, Kisielewski M, Asher J, Ong R, Lawry L. Association of sexual violence and human rights violations with physical and mental health in territories of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. JAMA 2010;304(5):553-562.

[2] McGinn T, Casey S, Purdin S, March M.  Reproductive Health for Conflict-Affected People: Policies, Research, and Programs. Humanitarian Practice Network at Overseas Development Institute. Network Paper No. 45. 2004 April.

[3] OCHA Policy Development and Studies Branch. Discussion paper 2: The nature, scope and motivation for sexual violence against men and boys in armed conflict. UN OCHA Research Meeting on the Use of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Identifying Gaps in Research to Inform More Effective Interventions. 2008 June.

[4] Del Zotto A, Jones A. Male-on-male sexual violence in wartime: human rights’ last taboo? Paper presented to the annual convention of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, 23-27 March 2002.