Sexual Violence Against Boys & Men in Conflict Settings: The Men of Peace, Hope and Courage.

Alastair Hilton
May 13, 2013

This article was originally written by Alastair Hilton and published in 2013, on the web site of the Good Men Project, shortly after the first, historic South- South Institute, held in Kampala, Uganda.

For over twenty years I have worked with male survivors of sexual abuse and violence, carried out research focusing on the sexual abuse of boys and men in Cambodia and am currently engaged in another study exploring the needs and challenges of service providers working with male survivors of sexual violence in developing countries. For me this is an issue that is all consuming – as a professional social worker, researcher, long time activist – and also as a man who was also once a vulnerable boy.

The silence endured by male survivors of sexual abuse should never be underestimated. Shame, stigma, the fear of discovery and responses of others, are just some of the factors that lead many to wait twenty years or more before they tell anyone. The vast majority of male survivors never seek ‘professional’ help, even if it is available. The culture of silence is paralysing and not restricted to survivors themselves.

My interest was drawn again in March of this year, when, in a blaze of publicity, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actor Angelina Jolie visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet victims of rape in conflict zones – and subsequently sought to engage governments in taking action at the April G8 foreign ministers meeting in London.

Whilst their efforts are commendable and the commitment of those G8 representatives long overdue, there was to my mind also something quite surreal at the sight of Ms. Jolie making her closing speech, surrounded by sombre looking men in suits, nodding in agreement as she spoke of the ‘forgotten victims of war’ and the ‘rights of women and children.’ There was a very brief mention of men as victims of course, which I guess is a step in the right direction, though subsequent media reports barely mentioned males at all.

Whilst progress is being made in many settings, the continued invisibility of men as victims and subsequent lack of meaningful debate is astonishing, especially taking into consideration the increasing evidence, both in peace and wartime settings, of an epidemic of sexual abuse where boys and men are concerned. As if further evidence of this invisibility were needed, a recent BBC Hardtalk programme broadcast at the beginning of May, featured Zainab Bangura, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Unbelievably, there was not a single mention of men and boys by Bangura, and not a question asked about this by the interviewer. The overwhelming silence continues.

It’s not that I am ungrateful for the efforts of Hague and Jolie – I recognize that women and girls are predominantly the victims of rape and abuse in peace time and conflict, and that the vast majority of services and support for women and girls are not adequate – but I also have concerns that males are continually overlooked. Anyone with a commitment to social justice in all its forms should not be at all complacent and grateful for a few sound bites and being thrown a few ‘crumbs off the table’ in the form of politically expedient press releases. There is much to do if all victims of rape and abuse, whatever their gender or identity, are to receive the support they so richly deserve.

Back in 1990, Fran Sepler, quoted in Patrick Mendel’s seminal work The Male Survivor wrote of what she termed the ‘feminisation of victimisation’ – where essentially women and girls are perceived  as victims and men as the perpetrators of sexual violence. A generation later, little seems to have changed in so many respects. This is still very much the lens through which sexual violence is predominantly defined and viewed in communities, organisations and the corridors of power within most international organisations. When international NGOs and their representatives speak of ‘gender based violence’, they invariably mean women and children, when they speak of ‘women and children’ the reality, as I have discovered on numerous occasions, is that they are referring to ‘women and girls’. Somehow ‘the language of ‘gender’ has morphed into something that essentially excludes boys and men as victims.

The fact that this was so clearly illustrated by Bangura on the Hardtalk programme was no coincidence; this is the normal state of affairs.  When men and boys are included in gender based violence work, it is as ‘agents of change’, enlisted to prevent violence against females (and rightly so) but they are still predominantly excluded from the discourse where victimisation is discussed. It is simply not acceptable that males as victims are continually ignored or so often only briefly mentioned.

My own experiences and research in peace and wartime contexts identify that support and appropriate services for male victims are few and far between. Specific training and assistance for those working with males is conspicuous by its absence. Many professionals struggle to know how to help and often comment that they feel as isolated as those they are striving to support. Against this backdrop a lack of awareness in many settings leads to discrimination, and a continuation of the humiliation and paralysing silence many male survivors experience. Recent research with NGOs working in conflict zones illustrates this. Of 4076 surveyed – only 3% of their literature made any mention of males, and often only in passing. At the same time global estimates suggest one in six boys and men will experience some form of sexual abuse in their lives, whilst increasing evidence within conflict zones identifies that up to a third of men have experienced and continue to suffer unimaginable and horrific sexual violence. And yet, the silence continues.

UN Human Rights tools have been described by Laura Stemple, an academic from UCLA School of Law in the US  as ‘essentially inadequate’ for addressing the rape of men in conflict as they barely mention males –  leaving no room for analysis of male abuse and rape at all. Many if not most of the humanitarian tools and responses currently available, fundamentally ignore boys and men – and where they are included these documents prove inadequate. As someone who has spent most of his professional life working with female and male victims of abuse, it seems unbelievable that in the twenty first century, most are unable, or unwilling perhaps to take this issue seriously.

Setting the Agenda for Change: The Men of Peace, Hope and Courage.

But as the G8 foreign ministers were making their pledges and exchanging firm handshakes, a few thousand miles away, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, something was stirring.

The week of April 8th – 12th 2013 witnessed the birth of the ‘South- South Institute for Sexual Violence Against men and Boys in Conflict and Displacement’. An historic event that brought together male survivors, service providers, researchers, law and medical students, activists and legal experts with a view to taking positive action in this long neglected field. There was some media coverage, as evidenced by this Al Jazeera clip.

From my own perspective, the origins of this event stretch back to July 2011 when I read a compelling and disturbing article by Will Storr, The Rape of Men published in the UK Observer.

In an article that I consider should be compulsory reading for anyone who has breath in their body, he described in shattering detail the abuse experiences of men from Uganda, The Democratic Republic of Congo and others from the Great Lakes region. Previously untold stories and struggles, and importantly, the article highlighted the work of Dr. Chris Dolan, the Director of the Kampala based Refugee Law Project (RLP) and his staff. After reading the article I was horrified – not only at the extent of the violence but also the prejudice experienced by survivors and those striving to support them. The report shares how attempts were made by UN agencies to prevent the showing of RLP’s groundbreaking 2009 film Gender Against Men and how at least one international donor responded to their work, by threatening to cease funding RLP if they worked with more than 30% of their total client group being male.

After a few brief email exchanges I was privileged to meet Chris Dolan in November 2012 at a conference held by US based ‘Male Survivor’ in New York, where we shared our frustrations at trying to raise this issue within the international community and the lack of genuine support that exists for males in many settings. We talked of our hopes for the future and of dreams of bringing people together from developing countries and those in the southern hemisphere to address the reality of this situation.

It was clear to me at least that we could not in many respects rely on the so called ‘international community’ to provide the leadership, support and momentum to get this off the ground. We teamed up with Ken Clearwater, the manager of The Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (MSSAT) in New Zealand, who has worked with over 1500 male victims of sexual abuse and hatched a plan.

Guided by Chris and his team at RLP, over the next few months, a week of events was planned. What emerged was a groundbreaking and historic event surpassed all of our expectations. The Institute brought together 30 survivors from three groups that RLP has worked with in the last few years – all victims and survivors of horrifying sexual violence and abuse, designed to strip them of their very identity as men. As an honoured participant I was moved by their courage, their warmth and commitment to breaking the ‘culture of silence’ that for so long had fractured their communities, whilst shaming and subjugating them.

The members of the three survivor’s groups represented – the ‘Men of Hope’, based in Kampala, ‘Men of Peace’, based in Nakivale and ‘Men of Courage’ from Acholi sub- region of Northern Uganda, were truly inspirational. As those gathered felt safer and grew in confidence, initial cautious glances were replaced by a determination to speak out as courage was harnessed, and moving testaments were shared. Ken Clearwater shared his own inspirational story of childhood abuse, his search for support and understanding, and his subsequent efforts to influence change in his native land. As momentum gathered, many survivors were able to recognise their own courage through the words of others and stood and spoke publically of their experiences, fears and hopes – often for the very first time. Tears were shed, including my own, courage warmly applauded, and as the days passed – friendships formed and warm embraces exchanged.

Throughout the week, seminars and working groups identified important legal changes required, what male survivors need from service providers – which were shared later in the week with international and local NGOs and representatives of Government – setting the agenda for meaningful change. Workshops with legal students dismantled existing prejudices and identified action to transform the way survivors are treated. Medical protocols were turned on their head as the event transformed the perceptions and the lives of those attending. Training needs assessments carried out with service providers will lead to the development of focused and specific training curriculums for service providers – and importantly will be developed from the perspectives of survivors themselves.

For an inaugural event so much was achieved, that far exceeded expectations, as Chris Dolan, the modest inspiration behind the inaugural event  commented, “When we first started meeting with individual survivors we did not think it possible to get thirty men in one place meeting with a such wide range of civil society stakeholders in a way that has happened, it’s  a tribute to them and their courage, a comment on the importance for survivors to have their own safe space and voice and on the growing willingness of stakeholders in sexual and gender based violence work to look at this issue, to take notice and get involved”.

He further commented on the significance of breaking the silence and isolation for those involved – both now and in the future: “It was so important for survivors from different conflicts to see and meet with others from other situations and realise just how much they had in common… in many ways the significance of this event is still sinking in for many of us, what came out so clearly from the sharing and discussions over the week was just how specific and significant some of the dynamics of violence against men in conflict are”.

It is clear that many of the benefits of the inaugural South- South Institute will continue to be felt for many years to come. When men, women, boys and girls are abused, it is often said that the ‘ripples of abuse’ can be felt for many years. Those involved in Kampala have certainly created a few of their own.

For me the event will last long in the memory, evidence of what committed individuals, working together can achieve, in spite of the barriers placed before them. As for the future… the momentum has been set, something very special was unleashed in Kampala that in the experiences of many of those present will never be equalled. The documentation from the first Institute will be compiled and transformed into action plans for use within Uganda and across the region. Plans are afoot to hold the second South-South Institute in Phnom Penh in 2014, with a focus on addressing issues relating to sexual abuse of males within community settings. Participants will travel from Central and South America, Africa, South and South East Asia, the Pacific and Australasia to share experiences, best practice and garner support. A web site will soon be established, enabling those working in developing countries to reduce isolation, connect, mentor, build on what has already been achieved and for survivors to have a voice and break the culture of silence that characterises this issue.

It is that silence that emerged as one of important themes from the survivors groups. As they gained courage and shared their testimonies, there was talk of the need to break the considerable and suffocating culture of that silence. One participant described it as like having a snake in the house, one ‘that will kill you in the end’ unless you deal with it, whilst others identified how the it only serves to empower the perpetrators. All embraced the need to ‘shatter the silence’, ultimately leading to positive change for individuals, families and communities. There is no doubt in my mind that a force of nature was unleashed in Kampala, one that is compassionate, empowering, inspiring and energising in equal measure. I doubt that any of the lives of those present will ever be the same again.

As the week’s events drew to a close, I found time to sit quietly with Julius Okwera, the 78 year old leader of the ‘Men of Courage’ from Northern Uganda. Julius is a calm and dignified man, the kind of man that perhaps you might wish that your own father could be like. The kind of man with qualities that we may hope for ourselves. A man who has overcome his own considerable loss and pain to set an inspiring example of unassuming humanity, courage, warmth and leadership.

His own story is laid bare for all in the powerful and moving RLP produced film They Slept With Me.

He calmly recalls how Ugandan Government troops entered his compound in the 1980’s and raped and murdered women, children and many of the men. He shares how he lost his wife and unborn twins she was carrying as a result of their ordeal. Decades later, his experiences and voice echo the pain and horror – but have also opened the door to new possibilities of healing and justice for all victims of sexual violence in Uganda, the Great Lakes region of Africa and across the globe.

He paused, thoughtfully choosing his words as he explained how important it is for the world to know about what had happened to him and his community. He shared that there were still many men of his generation in his own village, survivors of sexual violence who have still not spoken of their experiences and remain smothered by the culture of silence, shame and fear. He stared into the night sky and smiled warmly as he explained “They will speak out… when they are ready… and we will be here to listen”. There was a calm reassurance in his voice that left me in no doubt at all that what I had witnessed in Kampala was truly an unforgettable and life changing experience and one, that if Julius has his way, will be repeated the world over.

Alastair Hilton

With a background in social work and child protection, and inspired by his own childhood experiences, Alastair is a passionate advocate for the rights of male survivors, which led to him being a founder member of First Step in the UK  (1997) First Step Cambodia (2010), and the South- South Institute on Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys (2012). He was the lead researcher and author of "I thought it could never happen to boys" (2008), the first in depth study of sexual abuse and exploitation of boys in Cambodia. He has worked on numerous studies related to sexual exploitation, abuse and sexual violence, more recently with ECPAT International, including projects related to Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (with partners in Africa and Asia), and the Global Boys Initiative, alongside partners in South Korea, Hungary, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others. He developed the unique 'Bridging the Gap' toolkit for practitioners working with boys following sexual exploitation and abuse in 2020, which has  been translated into several languages. He is currently working to develop further strategic partnerships with a range of global development organisations  - designing and implementing research related to sexual exploitation and abuse, and developing programs, prevention, support and learning initiatives.

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