Sexual Violence: Monopoly of victimhood?

In Uganda, data suggests that not only women and girls are sexually assaulted in times of conflict and war, but also men and boys. Yet, male rape victims are almost invisible in interventions and even debates on conflict related sexual violence. Attention is overwhelmingly focused on girls and women. -There is a monopoly of victimhood, says Chris Dolan, Director at the Refugee Law Project at the School of Law, Makerere University.

Women’s protection needs have forcefully been put on the international protection agenda in recent years. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 states that all parties involved in a conflict must take measures to protect women and girls. The message that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence is also at the forefront in resolutions from 2008 and 2009. What are the consequences of this need to specify protection on the basis of gender?

There has been no corresponding explicit recognition of how sexual violence is used against and affects boys and men in conflict situations. The use of language in resolutions from the Security Council is characteristic of how male victimhood has been treated in the discourse of sexual violence, more broadly says Chris Dolan, Director of the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University.

Invisible victims of sexual violence
Chris Dolan recently participated in the seminar “Gender and the Paradox of War Norms”, organized by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, where researchers working on protection practices in different parts of the world addressed civilians’ needs in conflict and war zones.

The regression to gender essentialism in the interest of a particular pro-women agenda has not only killed the essential emancipatory political potential of a holistic gender analysis. It is also undermining the capacity to provide protection in a meaningful sense, as it has pulled a veil over the protection needs of the other half of the population, says Dolan.

‘Men are strong, women are weak’
In the conflicts and civil wars in Uganda and Congo, rape and sexual assaults have been frequently used as weapons of war. Survivors do not only suffer from severe physical injuries, they are also stigmatized and shunned.

Dolan and his colleagues at the Refugee Law Project have interviewed many male rape victims from Congo and Uganda. According to Dolan, their experiences destabilize one of the most central pillars of patriarchy; that ‘Men are strong, and women are weak’.

The rape victims’ stories strongly suggest that women and men share certain forms of vulnerability in conflicts, he says.

According to Dolan, refugee camps should be key sites for investigations and interventions, and a systematic screening for sexual violence should be done in every conflict. The Refugee Law Project is currently involved in developing a screening method for refugees together with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, based on their experiences with and interviews of refugees in Uganda and Congo.

Turning the tide
By asking men and women the same questions, the Refugee Law Project has uncovered that many victims of rape are men and boys. Some male rape victims have recently chosen to share their stories in international media and in their local communities. And for the first time, support groups are being made.

In 2013, the UNSCR 2106 for the first time attracted attention to sexual assaults against men and boys. Is this a sign that the tide is about to turn?

What comes out of committees’ talk is always the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, the lowest common denominator is now shifting. The shift in UNSCR 2106 is a sign of progress, but we still have a long way to go. Sexual violence should not be treated as a binary female-male opposition. We need to rethink the way in which language is used, in documents on sexual violence in general, and in resolutions from the Security Council in particular. Even as we work on the language, we need to be developing best practice on working with men and boy survivors, recognizing that even as sexual violence often erases the gender binary, prevention of and responses to such violence need to be gender sensitive if they are to be effective, says Dolan.