“I Don’t Know Who Can Help” Men and Boys facing Sexual Violence in Central African Republic
Sexual violence against women and girls in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been described by the UN and international human rights organisations as a “weapon of war”. Although it is acknowledged that men and boys have been among the victims of sexual violence, they have not been the focus of research or investigations. As a result, the scale and nature of sexual violence against males in CAR is little understood and men and boys have not been systematically factored in to protection strategies or into the design and implementation of responses for survivors.
Research carried out in 2017 and early 2018 by All Survivors Project (ASP) sought to address this knowledge gap by exploring the extent of conflict-related sexual violence against males in CAR and the factors that contribute to male vulnerability there. Through reviews of existing literature, interviews with key informants and survivors and focus group discussions, ASP also assessed the adequacy of responses to sexual violence against men and boys with a view to identifying how these can be strengthened.
While further research is needed to determine the prevalence of sexual violence against men and boys in CAR, ASP’s findings point to a discernible pattern of male sexual victimisation that warrants urgent attention. ASP gathered data on multiple incidents, many of which took place during the past year. In Basse-Kotto prefecture, which has been the scene of fierce fighting between non-state armed groups throughout 2017, ASP recorded information on a possible 41 cases in which adult males were subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence by members of non-state armed groups. ASP also documented 10 possible incidents of sexual violence against men and boys in or around the town of Kaga Bandoro in Nana-Grébizi prefecture in 2017 where there have also been high levels of armed violence between non-state groups fighting for control of the area.
In Obo, the capital of Haut-Mbomou prefecture in the southeast of the country, an international provider of psychosocial support and other gender-based violence services reported having received 121 male survivors of sexual violence in its facilities in the town between January and October 2017. The cases consisted of 86 men and 35 boys, of whom 93 were abused by members of non-state armed groups, predominantly the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Other humanitarian organisations with which ASP spoke reported lower numbers but are nevertheless regularly assisting men and boys who have been subjected to sexual violence by armed groups.
Although it is possible that incidents of sexual violence involving men and boys have increased in the past year as insecurity spread to previously unaffected parts of the country, it is clear from secondary data that sexual violence against males is not a new phenomenon. Individual cases dating from 2003 onwards have been documented by UN investigations and human rights mapping exercises and by international human rights organisations. In addition, and despite efforts to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, cases continue to be recorded in CAR.
ASP’s research points to specific circumstances in which men and boys may be more vulnerable to sexual violence and to some parallels with females in terms of patterns and profiles of victims and perpetrators. In the cases documented by ASP, sexual violence was most common during armed attacks or when men and boys were held captive by armed groups. There were also verified incidents in which men were subjected to sexual violence because they refused to join armed groups, as well as indications that boys associated with armed groups may be vulnerable to sexual violence while in the ranks.
As with women and girls, sexual violence against males appears to be used to terrorise and humiliate perceived “enemies”. In some cases, it is carried out in revenge for attacks by opposing armed groups. However, there are also incidents of opportunistic sexual attacks on men and boys made possible by the absence of rule of law in the country and resulting impunity for criminal acts.
ASP found cases in which men were subjected to prolonged and repeated acts of sexual violence. For example, four survivors interviewed by ASP recounted similar stories in which they were captured during armed attacks by members of ex-Séléka armed groups and taken to makeshift military camps where they were held in appalling conditions and repeatedly raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence over the course of many days. Each witnessed the rape of other men or boys detained with them. Two were forced to rape or commit other acts of sexual violence on fellow captives. Similar treatment of individuals captured by anti-Balaka or other self-defence groups has been documented by the UN.
These accounts are consistent with information from humanitarian organisations which told ASP that the male survivors they see have typically been anally raped with a penis or with objects such as sticks or guns. Incidents of gang rape have been documented, as have incidents in which males have been forced to engage in oral sex with and touch the genitals of other males: according to one human rights expert this may be a deliberate tactic to increase the sense of shame of victims by making it appear that they have engaged in a homosexual act. This is particularly stigmatising in CAR where homophobic attitudes are widespread.
ASP also compiled information from secondary sources involving cases of forced nudity, forced masturbation and of incidents in which men had their genitals beaten, mutilated and cut off, as well as other forms of harm including incidents in which women and girls were the primary victims of sexual violence but their male relatives were forced to witness the attacks. In some cases, these crimes appear to have been motivated by the intent to punish male relatives.
There are signs that cases involving male victims are beginning to be documented more proactively by UN human rights experts and that humanitarian stakeholders are looking more closely at how to ensure greater gender inclusivity in their responses. Nevertheless, ASP is concerned by an apparent working assumption among some stakeholders, including human rights, gender and child protection experts and humanitarian service providers, that sexual violence is an issue that affects only women and girls.
This type of rigid gender stereotyping has resulted in a situation in CAR where human rights stakeholders have not always been proactive in investigating incidents involving males and where humanitarian workers and other service providers are often poorly equipped to identify and respond to men and boys as victims. Even where data on sexual violence against males has been gathered, it has not been systematically shared with all relevant stakeholders and is not consistently used to inform the design of sexual violence prevention and response strategies.
Similar biases also permeate CAR society. Key informants and participants in focus group discussions expressed attitudes towards sexual violence against males that varied between lack of awareness, dismissal, denial and confusion. Approximately three quarters of focus group participants said that it is regarded as a taboo subject that cannot be discussed. Some expressed the belief that sexual violence against males did not occur in their communities. One humanitarian worker described how people often “laugh like crazy” if they hear about sexual violence against males: “It’s funny for them. They can’t imagine that a man can be raped.” To the extent that sexual violence against males is understood or acknowledged, it is perceived as shameful and a sign of weakness, so much that admitting to being a survivor of sexual violence is widely regarded as bringing shame on the survivor as well as his family and broader community. In the words of a local government official in Obo, “we consider that [male survivors] are really dirty and dishonoured.”
Faced with such attitudes, it is thought that many male survivors choose silence over the risk of rejection by their families and communities. Even if they do disclose what has happened to them or seek assistance, there is little support in place for male survivors. With only very limited public services available, much of the work to respond to sexual violence is done by international humanitarian organisations. However, many aid workers to whom ASP spoke acknowledged that there is a lack of attention to men and boys in humanitarian programming.
Although ASP found positive examples where individual agencies were successfully integrating men and boys into programme design and implementation, this did not represent a systematic or co-ordinated approach across the humanitarian community. Generally, ASP found that levels of expertise on sexual violence against males among humanitarian service providers were low and that most organisations do not provide detailed training to staff on how to recognise and respond to sexual violence against males.
Inevitably, this lack of expertise translates into the way in which programmes are rolled out. At the level of awareness-raising and sensitisation in communities this means that activities focus primarily on women and girls. Communication and other materials on sexual violence including on how and where to access support often reinforce existing stereotypes of males as perpetrators and not as victims. State-provided medical and mental health services are extremely limited and inaccessible to many survivors. Where services exist, ASP’s research suggests that health professionals lack the skills and expertise to identify and provide appropriate care to adult male survivors. Moreover, a May 2017 assessment by the Global Protection Clusters’ Child Protection Area of Responsibility found a critical gap in providing quality services for child survivors of sexual violence. It is of particular concern that some of the most vulnerable children, including boys associated with armed groups, are not screened as potential survivors of sexual violence on their release from these groups.
Despite the bleak picture, there are immediate opportunities to strengthen responses including via the planned National Strategy for Fighting Violence Based on Gender in the Central African Republic 2018-2021. This three-year strategy, which is in the process of being finalised, should provide the policy framework for all interventions to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and set out actions needed for better co-ordination and integration of responses between the national authorities, UN and non-governmental stakeholders including in the areas of data gathering, service provision, community awareness and engagement, and institutional capacity-building and training. If the National Strategy is to be fully effective, the vulnerabilities of males must be explicitly recognised and gender-specific responses included, neither of which featured in the draft seen by ASP.
The National Strategy also includes actions aimed at strengthening access to justice for victims of sexual violence, which is currently effectively non-existent for victims whether male or female. In relation to accountability, two recent developments give some cause for optimism, specifically the establishment of a Special Criminal Court (SCC) to investigate serious crimes under international human rights and humanitarian law, and the setting up of a specialised police unit, the Joint Unit for Rapid Intervention and Eradication of Sexual Violence against Women and Children (UMIRR) to investigate crimes of sexual violence. Both are at an early stage and face significant challenges but nevertheless offer some prospect of justice to victims and present opportunities for building in a response to sexual violence against males as part of their broader work.
To contribute to these and other actions aimed at preventing and responding to sexual violence against men and boys, ASP offers the following summary recommendations:
- Non-state armed groups and other armed actors must immediately cease direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks. They must issue clear, public orders to their forces to stop all sexual violence and co-operate with investigations and prosecutions for sexual violence by troops under their command by national and international authorities.
- The issue of sexual violence against men and boys should be integrated into all government, UN and NGO strategies on preventing and responding to sexual violence. Resources should be dedicated to training and strengthening capacity taking into account the specific needs of male survivors. The process of finalising the National Strategy for Fighting Violence Based on Gender in the Central African Republic 2018-2021 provides an immediate opportunity to ensure that strategies and responses are gender inclusive. All other relevant strategies, plans and standard operating procedures should also be urgently reviewed to ensure gender inclusivity and at the same time specificity of the response. Funding appeals should likewise be revised to reflect any additional resources needed to ensure that programming and the provision of services for male survivors is not to the detriment of women and girls who have suffered sexual or other forms of gender-based violence.
- Data gathering and safe, anonymous information sharing on sexual violence against men and boys should be strengthened as part of broader efforts to monitor and report on conflict-related sexual violence. Consistent definitions and standards for data collection should be agreed across all agencies, mechanisms and processes for monitoring and reporting sexual violence to ensure accurate and consistent monitoring, investigation, recording and reporting of incidents of sexual violence against males. Vulnerable groups such as children associated with armed forces and armed groups and internally displaced persons should be systematically screened to identify men and boys who may have been subjected to sexual violence. Facilities (such as listening centres and child friendly spaces) should be designed to encourage and support confidential, safe access to and reporting by male survivors. This should include availability of confidential spaces and well-trained male and female staff.
- All relevant national and international stakeholders should receive training on how to respond to sexual violence that is grounded in inclusive understandings of sexual and gender-based violence. Every institution or organisation involved in preventing or responding to sexual violence should ensure that all staff are trained and have an in-depth understanding of sexual violence against men and boys and on distinctions and connections between gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and sexual violence. All service providers should also be trained on how and why to refer male survivors for medical, mental health, psychosocial and other appropriate support.
- Awareness raising and sensitisation activities on sexual violence should be gender inclusive and communities should be trained and supported to identify and support male survivors. Concerted effort is needed to build broader awareness of sexual violence against males in CAR and to counter the stigma associated with it. This is long-term work that will require a cultural shift but which is essential to creating an environment in which men and boys are better protected and in which male survivors can be supported.
- Humanitarian programmes and state-provided medical, mental health and psychosocial services must be strengthened so that they are available to all survivors of sexual violence and should be gender inclusive. Accelerated efforts are needed to strengthen available services and gender-specific and age-appropriate services and men and boys integrated into programme design and delivery. Existing examples of good practice in responding to male survivors should be built upon and men and boys consulted on their design and implementation. Minimum responses must include immediate access to survivor-centred, quality, free, confidential medical care for men and boys; safe and confidential referral systems for male survivors; access to psychosocial support for male sexual violence survivors and, if needed, for their family members; and specialised services for child survivors of sexual violence including boys.
- Impunity for crimes of sexual violence must end and victims’ right to remedy must be fulfilled including by holding perpetrators to account and providing comprehensive reparations to survivors, including compensation and guarantees of non-repetition. Accelerated action is needed to strengthen the capacity of national criminal justice stakeholders to investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence and to fully operationalise the SCC. These institutions should have dedicated capacity and expertise to effectively address sexual violence including against men and boys. The UMIRR must be accessible to male survivors and should proactively investigate reports of sexual violence against men and boys. In the meantime, individuals against whom there are credible allegations of serious human rights violations, including sexual violence, should be barred from holding public office and removed from the security forces.
- Strengthen strategies and actions to protect men and boys against sexual violence. Effective protection against sexual violence requires a high level of co-ordination among agencies involved in protection. This co-ordination does not currently exist in CAR nor does a shared understanding of the extent and nature of sexual violence against males. Protection of men and boys from sexual violence should be factored into strategies and actions to protect civilians from physical violence, including physical protection by military peacekeepers and political engagement with armed groups. The UN must in turn ensure that its military, police and civilian personnel comply with the UN “zero tolerance” policy on sexual exploitation and abuse.