There are no detailed statistics, but sexual violence against men and boys is increasingly being recognized as a protection concern in conflict and forced displacement situations. Photo by: A. Duclos / UNHCR

In 2011, Aimé was a 31-year-old school teacher in the town of Doruma, in northern Democratic Republic of Congo. When rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army attacked the town, Aimé and five other men were forced into the forest with them.

For the next two weeks they were kept in a hole dug in the ground. Most nights he was taken out and tortured. The first night his captors forced a stick into his anus. “It hurt enormously,” he recalled. During the following nights, five rebels took turns raping him.

The traumatic consequences of that episode, and the help that Aimé eventually found, illustrate how the often-overlooked problem of sexual violence against men in conflict situations is beginning to draw attention from the humanitarian community.

In recent years, refugee organizations have been paying more attention to the problem of sexual violence. But efforts have typically been directed toward women and girls, with advocates arguing that little has yet been done to identify and address the specific medical and psychosocial support that male victims need.

A recent victory came last year with the conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice president of the DRC, in the International Criminal Court. The case represented the first time the court had recognized rape as a weapon of war, including against men.

Several major humanitarian organizations are now working to make help for male victims a regular part of the response to emergencies. On March 23, the U.N. refugee agency and International Committee of the Red Cross, among others, will co-sponsor a high-level panel discussion on the issue in Geneva, Switzerland. The event has been organized by the Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH), a Geneva-based organization that provides training to humanitarian workers on supporting victims of sexual violence in conflicts and emergencies.

But the problem is often deeply hidden, organizations working in the field told Devex. Stigma, homophobia and the weight of traditional gender roles make reaching male victims particularly challenging. For the same reason, documenting the extent of the problem has been difficult.

“There is a dearth of data,” said Gregory Garras, UNHCR senior protection coordinator for emergencies. “But anecdotal evidence and a growing body of data shows that this happens in all conflicts.”

U.N. reports have documented patterns of mistreatment in conflict situations in which male detainees were raped, forced to rape family members or friends, had their genitals beaten or subjected to electrical shocks, were forced to provide oral sex to other men, or were castrated.

During Aimé’s captivity, he and the five men being held with him were raped each night — but other male captives were not. At first, he says he could not understand why this was. But he later realized that he and his five friends — teachers, church leaders and local officials — were pillars of the local community that the rebels wanted to destroy.

“They knew that if a man is raped, he will be excluded from society. He will become useless,” he said.

After two weeks, the Congolese army arrived and the rebels fled. The soldiers took Aimé to a hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his anus and other areas.

But the rebels had succeeded. When he returned to his home in Doruma, Aimé was met with hostility from people who could not accept a man who had been raped. “They said: ‘You have shamed your family,’” he told Devex.

Unable to find his wife and 5-year-old son, who had escaped during the rebel attack, he sought refuge in neighboring Uganda, where he received additional medical treatment for his injuries.

Today, he is the leader of the Kampala chapter of a Ugandan self-help and advocacy group for male victims of sexual violence, called Men of Hope. “Through the group I came to understand that what happened wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t the end of my life,” said Aimé.

UNHCR published its first guidelines for staff and humanitarian workers on supporting male victims of sexual violence in 2012, including guidance on how to identify victims who may not disclose their experience. UNHCR is also currently sponsoring research on the issue among Syrian refugee populations in Lebanon and Jordan.

The organization has encountered “lots of resistance” in talking openly about male victims and “varying degrees of success,” said Garras. “In some countries it’s hard enough to discuss issues relating to women and girls,” let alone those relating to the rape of men.

Charu Lata Hogg, founding director of the All Survivors Project and a panelist at the Geneva event this week, added that one of the biggest obstacles is the refusal of courts, hospitals and other institutions in many countries with refugee populations to recognize the issue. A U.N. report last year found that legal systems in 62 countries do not recognize male victims of rape.

“We know from the limited data we have that men who have suffered sexual violence have very specific medical and psychological needs,” she said.

Garras agreed that when it comes to improving support, “it’s not enough to say 'we won’t discriminate.’” Screening and signage need to be gender-neutral, he said, and community outreach should explicitly welcome both male and female victims. Safe places and counseling should be available for men, as should medical services for injuries associated with anal rape and other forms of anal violation.

Aimé was fortunate to find perhaps the leading organization supporting male victims in Africa. The Refugee Law Project was established in 1999 at Makerere University in Uganda and currently supports three Men of Hope self-help groups in different parts of the country, working with 400 male survivors of sexual violence.

“We have learned that it’s extremely difficult for male survivors to come forward due to the social taboos, legal problems and the fact that most service providers are not geared up to deal with this,” said Chris Dolan, executive director of the Refugee Law Project.

The support groups offer a safe place where survivors share experiences and provide each other with moral and practical support on issues such as finding appropriate medical treatment and seeking employment. Leading members have been speaking in public and meeting with local government officials to press for better treatment of survivors and changes to Uganda’s harsh anti-homosexuality laws, which can impede help for male rape victims.

Group members also provide training to Uganda’s military and police and have traveled abroad to speak at international conferences.

In the face of stigma, bringing survivors together is one of the best ways to promote healing, said Dolan. “It’s crucial. It helps break down the isolation that most survivors find themselves in. Most think they are the only ones to have suffered this way,” he said.

Update, March 21: This article was updated to clarify that the event on March 23 was organized by CERAH

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About the author

  • Burton Bollag

    Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.