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Rape as a “weapon of war” against men

Rape is part of the violence in the DRC
Rape is part of the violence in the DRC (FredR/Flickr)

Sexual violence against men, including rape, is under-reported, poorly addressed and has a severe impact on both men and their families, according to a presentation at the annual Sexual Violence and Research Initiative (SVRI), held in Cape Town, South Africa.

A study by Mervyn Christian, of the US-based Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, using community focus groups and in-depth interviews with seven male rape survivors in Bukavu, in South Kivu Province, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), found that armed combatants had anally or orally raped men in a nearby forest, while at least two were raped in their homes in front of their families.

Rape against women has been used as a “weapon of war” in many countries. The eastern DRC makes up most of the available research on sexual violence during conflict, according to Claudia Garcia Moreno, coordinator of the World Health Organization's Department of Gender and Women. But Christian said sexual violence against men has been largely ignored in eastern DRC, although the complex societal, psychological and physical consequences are very similar.

Men in his study also reported being abducted by combatants and held for a few months or even as long as three years, during which they were repeatedly raped. After escaping from the armed groups, all the men sought medical attention and some were hospitalised for up to 14 months to treat their injuries, but Christian noted that none received follow-up care due to the lack of clinics. 

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At least eight armed groups operate in eastern DRC.

Across the border in South Sudan, anecdotal evidence from Juba County indicated a higher than expected number of men reporting sexual violence during the Sudanese civil war, according to Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, Executive Director of Uganda's Isis-Women's International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE).

The Juba County health system is almost non-existent and resources for the survivors of sexual violence are scarce - Ojiambo Ochieng said and that Juba's only psychiatrist was about to retire.

A definition too narrow

In DRC, which has some of the world's highest reported levels of intimate partner violence, conflict-driven rape has become a programme focus for NGOs and international organizations working there, to the detriment of addressing the health consequences of domestic violence and even broader conflict-driven gender-based violence, said SVRI participants.

Jocelyn Kelly of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University, said the term "sexual violence" in DRC had become synonymous with the rape of women by armed groups, leading programmes to exclude female and male survivors of abuse and gender-based violence (GBV), and male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

"Certain donors have myopia about helping only women," Kelly told IRIN. "We visited a programme where a donor had prioritised handing out sexually transmitted infection [STI] treatment to conflict rape survivors. So, the husbands couldn't get STI treatment, which is clearly counterproductive because you're just [allowing] the STI to be passed back and forth [between partners]."

Viewing rape primarily as a weapon of war may also be affecting how sexual violence is defined and lead to under-reporting.

''Violence against women is a huge issue, [violence against men] is an emerging one''

"GBV is defined as violence that targets women or men because of their sex or gender, but often when we talk about gender-based violence it's used interchangeably with violence against women," Christian pointed out.

Men participating in the study reported that armed combatants forced them to have sex with family members, objects, or even the ground, but the men themselves did not define this as sexual violence.

"Violence against women is a huge issue, [violence against men] is an emerging one," Christian told IRIN.


When men returned to their communities after being attacked, they faced a wide range of psychosocial challenges, including stigmatisation, and so did their families. The study quotes a respondent as saying, "When a man is raped, his family is also raped."

As men struggle with no longer feeling "like a man", their families often experience social stigma if community members learn of the attack. "The whole family is not respected - his wife is considered lower than other wives in the community," Christian told IRIN.

Focus groups also reported that peers taunt the children of male sexual violence survivors, and men or women returning home after being held by militias are often viewed with suspicion because the community wonders whether they will bring the soldiers back or may be spies.

The issue of male survivors is rarely discussed. "The community is afraid that if people know about [these attacks] they might imitate [this] behaviour," said Christian. "The community doesn't want to talk about it ...and there's no organization that is talking about it - no one wants to talk about it, it's completely a culture of silence."

Christian cited the need for more research into men's experiences of sexual violence in conflict, as well as a shift to including men in ongoing outreach to GBV survivors in conflict areas.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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