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Male Rape: Too Taboo to Address?

(This article was originally published in The Mantle)

By Emily Cody

A population-based assessment completed recently by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly 40% of women and 23% of men in three Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had been subjected to gender based violence (GBV) since conflict reignited in the mid-1990s. Though some INGOs operational in the region have questioned the methodology of the survey, no one has questioned the existence of GBV against men. While GBV against women has been significantly researched, GBV against men remains an emerging issue often relegated to the back burner.

Statistics on both men and women have to be taken with a grain of salt; many survivors of GBV simply do not report incidents due to a myriad of reasons, foremost being fear of stigmatization in their communities. So what is to be done? One problem is with reporting. Many well-intentioned NGOs often don’t know what they are looking for. There has been increased awareness about monitoring GBV against women.

GBV against men is often accompanied by other acts of violence and may not leave visible scars, so it is often skipped over in interviews or can be easily obscured. Men also tend to report GBV differently, often speaking more as an observer than victim. Another is how reporting is collated. GBV against women is often categorized separately, whereas GBV against men is often presented as an act of torture. Paradoxically, this move is in line with the push to classify rape as torture but has diminished awareness of it for men.

Lack of relevant legal standards also exacerbates the situation. In some countries, legal definitions of rape only apply to women, or do not accurately describe male rape. As a paper on GBV against men by Sandesh Sivakumaran states, “ Through its definitions and the way it talks about events, law has the power to silence alternative meanings  –  to suppress other stories.’”

Male GBV survivors also face an additional burden in that if they are unable to describe the event or are too traumatized to describe it accurately, they risk the danger of their actions being viewed as consensual homosexual acts, similar to the risks women face when reporting rape in countries with sharia legal systems. This can lead to further stigma and potential prosecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal or extremely controversial, such as Uganda. In some cases of GBV, men have been forced to rape other men and/or women, making them more reluctant to report GBV.

GBV in conflict is an intensely political act: the international community has moved away from a “spoils of war” explanation of GBV in conflict and developed a legal and policy framework which recognizes sexual violence as a particularly brutal instrument of war. Recent analysis has suggested that this explanation itself be furthered into broader discussions of gender and violence. Understanding GBV has a lot to contribute to conflict resolution as it is often at its most prevalent when existing power dynamics and hierarchies have collapsed and are subject to reconfiguration.

At the macro-level, large aid agencies often do not see “the big picture” and for the most part ignore GBV. While networks at the micro-level to help female survivors of GBV are often overwhelmed, there are very little networks available for men (although Refugee Law Project and the African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims have done amazing work in this area providing counseling, with RLP also producing a documentary called Men Against Gender), and providing services often has to be done on the side, which can undermine local NGO’s workload possibly deterring future funding from international donors.

This discourse also had implications for international policy. GBV (against women) has become the main  lens through which Western advocacy groups view the DRC, but it also has produced, as Jason Stearns writes

“a pornography of violence [by journalists], trying to outdo each other with the most barbaric gang-rape scenario. This has produced something of a rape tourism in Bukavu and Goma, where the same women are interviewed over a dozen times by researchers and journalists about their rape. This makes them relive their trauma, and few of them see that anything has changed. The second fear is not so easy to dispel. It boils down to this: by using such a reductive approach, do we end up with good policy?...The causes of the conflict are complex, and if we wield policy like a bull in a China shop, we will break things.”

Paradoxically, ignoring issues of the way power itself is gendered (GBV can also be seen as an attempt to “feminise” the enemy, implying they are unable to protect themselves: torture in Abu Ghraib of male Iraqis forced to be naked by female Army officers is a good example) indicates that paradoxically the arguably skewed frames through which conflicts like DRC are viewed are missing part of the picture. It also perpetuates the stereotyping of African men as inherently violent, leading men who have suffered similar trauma to suffer in silence.


Emily Cody is a  researcher in political science and a program assistant at the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies in Uganda, a Sudanese human rights organization. 

[Photo courtesy of Enough Project]


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