Male gender-based violence: a silent crisis

23 June 2014
Articles and blogs
A few years ago, while visiting a sprawling refugee camp in eastern Chad, I sat down with a group of men, many of whom had just fled the terrible ongoing violence in Darfur. I wanted to hear what challenges they were facing after leaving their homes, jobs and ways of living back in war-torn Sudan.

Over and over again, the weary men told me how the conflict in Darfur, as well as life in the refugee camps, left them feeling powerless. Many had no way to provide for their families, and often felt like they had lost the respect of their communities and wives – even respect for themselves. This often leads to domestic violence, depression, abandonment of families, and other tragic consequences. Many men I interviewed complained that “you keep on empowering our women - but who comes to talk to us about regaining our dignity and listens to our problems?”

“Men and boys have also been sexually abused in conflicts. We don’t know the full scale of this crisis globally and how many have experienced sexual violence precisely because this has been such a hidden issue.”

And they are right. At a recent roundtable on sexual violence against men and boys, I was very surprised to hear that some humanitarian organisations were reluctant to include men and boys in gender and gender-based violence programming. Sexual and gender-based violence is rightly gaining greater attention on a global level, with high-level events such as last week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflicts, but discussions about sexual violence in conflict overwhelmingly tend to focus on women and girls as victims and men as perpetrators. Indeed it is true that statistics support the fact that women make up the majority of victims of gender-based violence and discrimination. But what about the men and boys who are also victims?

Actually, men are more likely to be killed during conflicts, according to a study by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), while women die more of indirect causes after the conflict is over. Men and boys are often seen as potential soldiers and fighters in conflicts – and thus a threat to the opposing side – due to the socially attributed role given to men. Targeted killings of men and boys because of their gendered role should be recognised as a form of gender-based violence, similar to sexual violence against women and girls.

Men and boys have also been sexually abused in conflicts. We don’t know the full scale of this crisis globally and how many have experienced sexual violence precisely because this has been such a hidden issue. But the Refugee Law Project tried to find out the rate of sexual violence against men and boys amongst refugees in Uganda. What they discovered is staggering: more than one in three Congolese male refugees have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.

This is far from being an isolated case: sexual violence against men and boys has been reported in over 25 conflict-affected countries in the last decade. And this may be just the tip of the iceberg.   

As humanitarians, we are guided by humanitarian principles including impartiality, meaning that aid should be provided according to needs. By not considering the specific vulnerabilities and needs of men and boys in humanitarian crises alongside that of women and girls, we are violating this principle.

Considering men and boys in humanitarian response is not only the principled action to take, it is also a vital part of the solution to support women and girls in crises. So why are we still so reluctant to tackle this silent crisis?