Break the Silence: the obstacles and affects of the non-reporting of sexual abuse against males amongst Rohingya Muslims

13 December 2019


Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi continues to stay silent in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the claim that the Burmese military used systematic sexual violence and rape against Rohingya Muslim women and girls, it has been found that male victims of sexual violence are keeping silent in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

Nurul Islam, a Rohingya man, says he was raped and tortured by Burmese soldiers during the military purge in Rakhine state in August 2017. The 40-year-old man said “They put me like a dog,” whilst demonstrating how the military humiliated and degraded him. He is one of the very few men to come forward and talk about his experience.

Sadly, so many men aren’t so open. He goes on to describe how after his attack, other Rohingya men dragged him across the border into Bangladesh and to a refugee camp. Here, he attended a health clinic for his injuries and was given painkillers, however, there were no questions asked by anyone as to how he attained the injuries and Nurul felt he couldn’t give and explanation stating, “I was too ashamed to tell them what had happened”.

One of the greatest obstacles of tackling sexual violence, no matter what gender, is the stigma that is so heavily attached, especially in developing countries. Sexual violence is seen to be a women’s issue and therefore prevents men from reporting the crime to authorities or even mentioning it to their loved ones. This, in turn, leaves humanitarian groups with little to no data in order to plan a better response.

Eva Buzo, the country director for Legal Action Worldwide, a European NGO explained that “The NGO world doesn’t acknowledge that it happened because there is no data, and there is no data because nobody is asking for it”.

The problem is that people are asking for it. Sarah Chynowth, a researcher who studied male survivors of sexual violence in emergencies around the world, found that men weren’t reporting their experience was because they simply didn’t know that what had happened to them was sexual violence or rape.

Chynowth said that when she asked refugees if they knew of men who had been raped or sexually abused, nearly all of them said no. However, when she left out the words “sexual” and “rape” and replaced them with “torture” and against their “private parts”, people began to open up.

She also found that it wasn’t just refugees who had a misunderstanding. When she asked aid workers in Bangladesh if they had encountered Rohingya men who had endured sexual violence, they would say no but, “As soon as I asked if they had treated men with genital trauma, the answer was: ‘Yes, of course’”.

There is a clear lack of understanding and education around sexual violence against men within and rape within refugee camps – aid workers and refugees alike. It must be rectified in order for the victims to get the appropriate support and counselling. It is vital that aid workers become educated on how to identify patterns of sexual violence against men, even if the men do not fully understand it themselves.

Sadly, this shift may take some time to materialise. Donald Sonne Kazungu, Medecins Sans Frontieres’ medical coordinator in Cox’s Bazar stated that “The [gender-based violence] sector has not been very proactive in training health workers to be honest…I don’t hear people talk about sexual violence against men. But this is not specific to this response.”

Cycle of Neglect

The needs of male survivors of sexual abuse have been massively overlooked and neglected by humanitarian organisations and their programmes within refugee camps in Bangladesh. This has led to a cycle of neglect of Rohingya men. The New Humanitarian interviewed a number of organisations working on gender-based violence, health, and mental health in the camps and they stated that the needs of male rape survivors have rarely been discussed, or that specialised services were seen as unnecessary. They explained that “What we do is just evidence-informed…We have evidence to show it’s for the most part women and girls who are affected by sexual violence. The numbers of male survivors are usually low.”

Buzo says the lack of services for male survivors in the Rohingya camps points to a reluctance to recognise the need for action out of fear it might come at the expense of services for women, which already suffers from a lack of funding. “There aren’t many services for women and girls. The response to all survivors is really poor,” she said. “But we should, and we can do both.”

Chynoweth believes health, protection, and counselling programmes for all survivors must improve.

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