Sexual violence against men and boys is a pervasive feature of armed conflicts. A recent paper by Australian researchers available from Australian Policy On-line provides commentary, recent data, and advice on the care and support of male survivors. The researchers point out that there is increasing awareness that armed conflict brings danger of sexual violence against men and boys. Such violence — including rape, sexual torture, mutilation, castration, sexual humiliation, forced incest, forced rape, and sexual enslavement — is sharply under-represented in official statistics, but is a pervasive feature of armed conflicts around the globe. One study in Liberia found that 32.6% of former male combatants had experienced sexual violence, mostly at the hands of armed forces. Males, like females, are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence in detention, with surveys of male torture survivors consistently showing rates of sexual violence of over 50%.
Male survivors of both adult and childhood sexual violence display a wide range of severe physical and psychological consequences of their experiences, with particularly high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. Men and boys face many of the same barriers to reporting sexual violence as women and girls do, including shame; confusion and ignorance; guilt; fear; and isolation. Meanwhile, doctors, counsellors and humanitarian workers often do not pick up sexual violence against males due to lack of training and gender stereotyping.
This briefing paper provides commentary and recent data on sexual violence against men and boys in conflict settings. It highlights promising programming and therapeutic approaches in the care and support of male survivors, ranging from public information campaigns to themes for therapeutic care and support for individuals. The payoff for helping male survivors has the potential to extend beyond the individuals involved to help families and communities, and to combat violence against women and girls as well. The report points out that sexual violence can take many forms, and includes both physical and mental violence that is carried out through sexual means or that targets the victim's sexuality and sexual and reproductive health. Directed against males, it generally falls into three overall patterns:
Sexual violence against males is sometimes committed with the intent of ultimately causing the victim's death — for instance, through heavy bleeding as a result of violence to the victim's genitals or anus.
The report warns that sexual violence against males appears to be increasing. In the last decade alone, sexual violence against male civilians and combatants, both adults and children, has been reported in 25 conflicts across the world. If one includes sexual exploitation of boys displaced by violent conflicts, the list encompasses the majority of the 59 armed conflicts identified in the 2003 Human Security Report. Until recently, there has been little statistical information on levels of sexual violence against males during conflicts—largely because men and boys are often very reluctant to report such violence, but also partly due to a lack of awareness on the part of those collecting information or offering help. However, recent studies on conflict-related sexual violence, as well as existing studies on torture, paint a disturbing picture.
In Liberia, according to a study of 1666 adults conducted in 2008, 32.6% of the study's 367 male former combatants had experienced sexual violence, mostly at the hands of soldiers or rebels. Of these, 81% reported current symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 14% had attempted suicide. Where boys are concerned, figures on sexual violence and abuse against children in displacement are extremely hard to obtain. However, to give a general idea of the scale of childhood sexual abuse, the World Health Organization has estimated that in a single year (2002), 73 million boys as well as 150 million girls experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual abuse.
The report does not mention circumcision, but there is evidence from other studies that men and boys have been the victims of assaults involving forcible circumcision, to say nothing of the daily violence inflicted on male infants and boys during “routine” circumcision procedures. In Aceh, Indonesia, Islamic extremists assaulted and forcibly circumcised Indonesian Christians, both male and female, and reports of circumcisions carried out by violent mobs in parts of Africa (Uganda, Kenya etc) are becoming more common as American aid agencies “roll out” their circumcision programs.
It is perfectly obvious that such attacks on adults are criminal assaults, but why would the same actions become legal when directed against children? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states:
Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child. (Article 19 (1))
Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. (Article 24 (3))
It is hard to know what Article 24 (3) could refer to unless it was genital mutilation of children, and it has generally been interpreted as having this intent. Following the adoption of the convention, many western countries and some Australian states introduced legislation criminalising any form of female genital mutilation, and in 1993 the Queensland Law Reform Commission looked into the possibility of a law along the same lines to protect boys. Its conclusion was that circumcision of minors was already technically illegal on two grounds: first, under the common law, and secondly under the specific assault provisions of the Queensland Crimes Act.
The reasons why the wording of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was so vague may be guessed, but that it was intended to refer to both male and female genital cutting was made clear in some of the subsequent consultations, such as in Lesotho, where a local committee reported:
Culture is a component of education. Cultural activities like circumcision are not to be a hindrance to a child’s right to education. It is proposed that proper medication be administered at circumcision schools. Children should be allowed to decide at 21 years of age whether or not they want to be circumcised. (Committee on the Rights of the Child, Initial reports of States parties due in 1994: Lesotho. 20/07/98. CRC/C/11/Add.20. (State Party Report), seen at http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/739266a4d55f1969802566e2003f7b92?Opendocument)
The reference here is to children’s right to decide, meaning both boys and girls. In Guinea-Bissau another report made clear that “traditional practices” were those affecting all children, not just girls:
The report states that traditional practices and customs are causing serious problems for children and women. The circumcision of boys aged 9 to 13 years and female genital mutilation in girls aged between 7 and 12 years among the Fula and Mandinga ethnic groups are the most cruel and harmful practices. There are no effective measures at the national level to eliminate them. (Committee on the Rights of the Child Considers Initial Report of Guinea-Bissau, United Nations Press Release, 22 May 2002, seen at http://www.unhchr.ch/huricane/huricane.nsf/view01/39E976491EF5DD8DC1256BC20029E249?opendocument)
Despite the reference to children, however, the rest of the report forgot about boys and went on to talk about the need for campaigns against female genital mutilation, and made no further mention of circumcision of males.
This tendency for “traditional practices prejudicial to … children” to be increasingly interpreted as applying to girls only was deplored in a report to the United Nations by the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, which pointed out:
That international humanitarian law, insofar as it provides protection against rape and other sexual assaults, is applicable to men as well as women is beyond any doubt as the international human right not to be discriminated against (in this case on the basis of sex) does not allow derogation. Males may not be discriminated against in the application of human rights principles. United Nations experts have acknowledged that at least under certain circumstances male circumcision constitutes a human rights violation. (Submission by Nocirc to the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, 23 March 2002, Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/NGO/1. Available at: http://www.cirp.org/library/ethics/)
The reference in the last sentence is to a UN report on the civil war in Yugoslavia, which states that as well as women suffering rape and other forms of sexual violence, “Men are also subject to sexual assault. … They have also been subjected to castration, circumcision or other sexual mutilation.” (United Nations Security Council, Commission of Experts’ Final Report [on the former Yugoslavia], 27 May 1994, document S/1994/674, part IV, section F. Seen at http://www.his.com/~twarrick/commxyu1.htm)
A glaring example of sexual violence against males is provided by recent news that the Indonesian overlords of West Papua planned to “require circumcision” of all indigenous Papuan men (i.e., forcibly circumcise them, presumably at the point of a gun if they object). This unbelievably authoritarian ruling was described and justified as an AIDS control measure, but it obviously has far more to do with religious conformity and Islamic cultural imperialism than tender concern for indigenous health, reminiscent of the Aceh extremists who could not bear the thought of infidels living nearby, and violently assaulted them in order to enforce at least anatomical conformity. The West Papuan authorities have since backtracked and announced that they do not plan to “require circumcision” but have emphasised its importance as an AIDS control tactic. We may be sure that even if men will not be forced, there will at least be strong pressure to get circumcised, with both sticks and carrots likely to be deployed, as in Africa. A striking feature of the episode has been the deafening silence of the United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations on what, by any yardstick, would be as gross a violation of individual human rights as would be possible to imagine.