Men and Boys as Hidden Victims of Sexual Violence


Generally, victims of rape and other types of sexual violence are reluctant to speak out. Unfortunately, exclusion and stigmatization are the unavoidable corollary of acts of sexual violence. While there still is limited awareness, focus and advocacy on women’s rights in sexually violent circumstances, it is even less so when men are the victims of these crimes. Reflections on the male victims’ perspective to sexual violence in unrest inspired Sophia Ugwu and her team at Centre for African Justice Peace and Human Rights, a non-profit Foundation based in The Hague, to organise a Symposium on sexual violence perpetrated against the Male gender.

Guest blog by Sophia Ugwu and Ruth Osaretin Ogbewekon

The Symposium brought together a panel of esteemed international Judges, a Medical Health Practitioner, a number of Ambassadors and an Academic who discussed different dimensions of the subject. Among the issues discussed were the phenomenon of sexual violence against the male gender, prosecuting conflict related sexual violence against men and boys in International and national courts, pushing against stereotypical ideologies as well as medical and psychological challenges affecting male victims.

In her opening remarks, Adesola Adeboyejo, a trial Lawyer at the International Criminal Court stated that domestic criminal courts of many countries neglect sexual violence against the male gender and only recognize sexual violence against females. In fact, NGOs that work on sexual violence against the male gender receive minimal funding because they are not the stereotypical victim. In addition to inadequate response to male victims, societal hostility towards male victims remains an issue. The society’s views on the man as the protector makes it incomprehensible to see him as the victim. This idea influences the quality of responses to male victims’ complaint as well as influence the legislation of what constitutes sexual offences. Consequently, sexual violence against men remain unreported and undocumented because of the fear of a hostile response to the matter; including social stigma.

The domestic jurisdiction of some countries stipulate that rape and some other forms of sexual violence can only be committed against women; significantly fewer domestic laws provide that it can be committed against men and women. In some of these jurisdictions the issue on the identity of the perpetuator is unresolved. Since society in general is still used to sexual violence as one perpetuated against women by men, it is not very clear whether males are the only perpetrators of sexual violence against their male counterparts or whether there are also female perpetrators of the offence. Even at the international level, with prosecutions at the Ad-hoc tribunals, it was also not certain from their judgements, whether sexual violence against males should be characterised strictly as crimes of a sexual nature. These issues in domestic and international criminal law, are what the symposium focused on to address. Essentially trying to understand the extent to which the gendered nature of sexual crimes is an obstacle to the effective prosecution of acts of sexual violence against boys and men.

The symposium also handled the experience of male victims of sexual violence. Explaining the health consequences of such a crime, Dr. Prisca Zwanikken stated that there are physical, mental and social consequences of sexual violence against the male gender. These include: traumatic genital and anal injury, sexually transmitted infections, and diseases, castration, physical impotence, swollen testicles, fecal incontinence, and sexual dysfunction among others. Pregnancy, as was reported by male survivors of sexual violence forced into sexual servitude by female combatants who became pregnant in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010. Additionally, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, suicide attempt, deep feelings of shame, guilt, anger, nightmares and loss of interest in sex are other effects on the psychology of the victim. Male victims are also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as sexual risk taking and abuse of alcohol and drugs post-trauma. These lead to negative health outcomes, alcohol and substance abuse, social dysfunction, stigmatization by family/ community, marital problems, social withdrawal, loss of interest in work, inexplicable outbursts of anger, intrusive thoughts about sexual torture during intercourse, trouble trusting others or establishing relationships, shaming and stigmatization of wife and children of husband who was raped and re-victimization of the male victim.

Discussing conflict related sexual violence, Prof. Drs. Anne-Marie De Brouwer, shared the testimony of Faustin-Kayihura, a male survivor of sexual violence from Rwanda who was raped severally by a woman during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Faustins testimony evidences that females are also perpetrators of conflict related sexual violence. By implication, the general construction of the male genital organ as a weapon of war, used by men who are usually superior, stronger and powerful, to conquer females and their communities, has been diminished based on the gravity of the offence perpetrated against Faustine. Sexual violence and rape of men targets the male sexual organs hence disempowering the male victim; that was the experience of Faustin which left him in shame and stigma for many years.

Uganda is one of the African countries where male victims of sexual violence reportedly exist. During her speech at the Symposium, Ambassador Mirjam Blaak Sow analysed the legal provisions for sexual violence in Ugandan Criminal law. The Ugandan domestic criminal law recognises only sexual violence against women and rape of women. As a result, the courts find themselves adjudicating more cases on sexual violence against females. This is not because males are not being sexually abused rather, it is because male victims do not report the offences. Male victims are discouraged from reporting because there are no facilities for responding to and litigating sexual violence against men. For instance, there are no facilities for forensic evidence, male victims are shamed by the society and the victims do not want to be scorned. While Uganda has international law which can protect its male victims (in the form of the Rome statute) it lacks enforcement mechanisms.

According to Ambassador Momar Diop, of Senegal, sexual violence against the male gender is seen as a taboo and men are not free to talk about it as a result of stereotypes existing in the society. Gender based violence are generally understood as violence inflicted on women by men. This has reduced the visibility of male victimhood as males who are victims are at the bottom of the hierarchy of victims of sexual violence; should such a thing exist. He noted that sexual violence against men occur in both conflict and peace times. He gave an example of paedophiles who perform violent sexual acts against boys in different parts of the world. Ambassador Momar Diop suggested that there should be improvement in the law and acknowledgement by the society that men can and are also victims of sexual violence. This, he said, would be a good way to encourage reporting of sexual abuses and justice for victims.

Furthermore, Ambassador Oji Ngofa stated that while the awareness and laws on sexual offences against women are being improved, the same cannot be said for male victims. In Nigeria, rape was recently defined to include males as possible victims. However, prior to this law, only women could be ‘raped’ under the legal definition of the offence. The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act which provides the new gender neutral definition of rape becomes the first legislation in Nigeria recognising that males can equally be victims of rape. Unfortunately, this very important piece of revolutionary legislation would have been of greater impact without its jurisdictional limitations. The VAPP Act is only applicable in the Abuja, where a very minimal percentage of the country’s population reside. He urged all the States in Nigeria to domesticate the VAPP Act as a means of protecting and giving justice to many male victims of rape.

Discussing the prosecution of sexual violence against men at International Criminal Tribunals, Niamh Hayes stated that sexual violence against men are only now getting the attention that has eluded it for years.  At the ICTY, the Tribunal prosecuted a number of cases of sexual violence including, forced nudity, genital torture, forced sexual contact between male detainees as a means of humiliating them, forced masturbation, among others. Looking at the case law of the ICTY, one would find that acts of sexual violence were classified as forms of torture, other inhuman acts, and outrages on personal dignity, cruel and inhuman treatment. Failing to characterise sexual violence against men explicitly as such, even though evidence was brought forth shows that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what sexual violence means. According to Niamh, sexual violence is not just a sexual act committed without consent, it includes acts that are targeted at a person’s sexual functions and sexual identity; this is an element that has not been fully understood in the jurisprudence of international tribunals. The definition of sexual violence was not so clear at the ICTY and it was also unfortunate that when they looked at the provisions of domestic jurisdictions, a lot of them did not for instance, recognise oral or anal rape in their own definitions of rape. Niamh called for more discussions on this subject because it is through such conversations that awareness is raised. Awareness would help combat the ignorance on this subject, thus making the environment conducive for a victim to report. The more the conversation, the less likelihood that someone who is prosecuting such offence will fail to identify the centrality of the sexual component of the violence. Judge Howard Morrison added to the point by calling for more research to develop understanding of this very important subject.

Looking at the developments on prosecution of sexual violence against men, the future is not bleak. The first male rape conviction in the history of international criminal law was recorded on 21 March 2016 at the International Criminal Court. Three judges, including Judge Joyce Aluoch, convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo for rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity. Mr Bemba was held responsible for the rape of a man by three armed soldiers who forcefully penetrated his anus with their genitalia and ejaculated into him, in the presence of the victim’s family and neighbor. The victim was stigmatized by the community. This also affected his health and self-worth as he could not walk and considered himself a “dead man”. These crimes were committed in the Central African Republic by troops that Mr Bemba had effective authority and control over. It is imperative to note that though Mr Bemba did not commit these crimes himself, he was convicted under command responsibility for his inactions as a Commander who failed to exercise control over his forces. Although Mr Bemba has been acquitted of the general war crimes and crimes against humanity charges on appeal, the reasoning of the Trial Chambers on sexual violence against men is of high jurisprudential significance. One can hope that this would inform future decisions of similar facts.

Judge Geoffrey Henderson discussed the need for international courts to influence legal developments on gender issues in domestic jurisdictions. He explained the principle of complementarity showing why it is important for domestic jurisdictions to improve their legislations to prosecute gender crimes of this nature. In addition, speaking on the initiatives at the International Criminal Court in dealing with sexual and gender based violence cases, Judge Joyce Aluoch explained that there are evidence that gender based violence is being used as a weapon of war in many conflicts. In cases involving crimes of sexual or gender based violence under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, The Rome Statute gives the Court a broad mandate to ensure the safety, physical and psychological wellbeing, dignity and privacy of victims and witnesses, especially in cases of violence against children. The ICC also provides reparations for victims of sexual violence, male or female, which provides them with reasonable support. Judge Aluoch further explained that the ICC being court of last resort cannot fight impunity alone. She emphasized that domestic jurisdictions can learn from the ICC. If States ratify the Rome Statute and make it part of their national laws by domesticating it, then the world can move towards a joint and universal effort to fight impunity on sexual violence against male victims.

In conclusion, sexual violence can happen in conflict and in peace situations; sexual violence can happen to anyone, no matter the age, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Perpetrators of sexual violence can be of any gender identity, sexual orientation, or age. On this note therefore, the understanding and prosecution of rape and other forms of sexual violence as acts of male domination over females needs to be overhauled.