April 26th, 2017
Hidden on the Ground: Exploring the Failure to Acknowledge and Address Sexual Violence Against Men in Uganda
Eleanor Sheerin Senior Essay Entry – 3rd Prize
Sexual violence committed in the context and furtherance of armed conflict is hardly a new phenomenon, but over the recent decades it has progressed exponentially; from being perceived as merely ‘the spoils of war’ to now being codified in international law as a war crime. However, it is generally portrayed in the public imagination as a crime exclusively committed against women. This gendered stereotyping is not only inaccurate, but it is a falsehood that is exploited to armed groups’ advantages: perpetrators are able to emasculate men through rape and other forms of sexual violence. This brutal assault on men’s dignity and sense of self is one that is so potent in both physical and psychological trauma, it has become a weapon wielded by rebel forces, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Ugandan People’s Defense Force alike, for its ability to disempower men and to weaken their communities: where men are at the centre of their ideas of virility, strength and power. When their men are raped, said power is diminished, and communities feel weak and unsafe as a result, and far less likely to fight back against their oppressors.
However, sexual violence against men is chronically under-reported – both by the media and humanitarian organisations to the larger international community, and by the victims themselves. This silence then translates into a general assumption that men are not victims of sexual violence, which does not correspond to the shocking prevalence of this issue: in one report, 38.5% of the 447 men asked in Uganda had experienced at least one incident of sexual violence in their lifetimes. Therefore, a vicious cycle is created: survivors do not want to come forward because they don’t believe this is a prolific crime that can be understood and treated by workers on the ground, and the crimes themselves cannot be reported because survivors do not come forward. If sexual violence against men is going to be sufficiently addressed, it must first be acknowledged by those who will be working on the ground with survivors.
Over the last quarter of a century, the conflict in Uganda has been driven by division: whether along national, religious or ethnic lines. Therefore, sexual violence against men becomes more than simply acts of sadism to assert power and dominance over individuals, but rather a military strategy of the various rebel groups and the Ugandan armed forces that leaves opposing families and communities destabilised and intimidated as they believe their men, now rendered as vulnerable and submissive as the stereotypical woman, are no longer able to defend and protect them. They ostracise these men subjected to sexual violence, and previously strong, cohesive communities disintegrate in an instant by toxic notions of masculinity. In this sense, gender constructs become even more dangerous in the wrong hands; they are wielded as weapons to devastating effect.
Another reason for the use of sexual violence against men as a weapon is its ability to silence victims when necessary. Male rape survivors’ stories rarely travel beyond their immediate community to any form of authority, as both they and the perpetrator enter into a “conspiracy of silence”. Male survivors often find, when they do come forward, that they lose the support and comfort of those around them, who do not want anyone to know they are associated with a male rape victim. In the homophobic and patriarchal society of Uganda, gender roles are strictly defined. Women are the victims, and men are not only the perpetrators, but the protectors of their community, particularly the women of said community. Masculinity and victimhood are seemingly inconsistent. The rape of men has particular significance in Uganda – as the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2013 means that survivors are even less likely to report their rape, for fear of criminal retribution. Therefore, the rape of men can be carried out safe in the knowledge that it is highly unlikely male victims will report the crime and risk their own arrest.
Even when a male survivor of sexual violence does make the decision to seek some form of help, they meet obstacles. The notions of masculinity and normative heterosexuality that propel the use of sexual violence against men as a weapon are perpetuated by those who are seeking to help heal the rifts of war through humanitarian work. The woman is recognised as the overwhelming victim, at the expense of male survivors. Workers on the ground are already overburdened with dealing with female victims of sexual violence, and are reluctant for this pool to be diluted even further. Initiatives that try to combat sexual violence are oriented towards the woman – for example, the sexual violence counselling clinic where the only choices of amenity were female-oriented, such as basket weaving, making the male survivors who did manage to get access to it feel even more isolated and emasculated, and serving as a warning to those who are yet to come forward that they could not be accepted by anyone if they did admit what happened to them. Medical personnel are oblivious to the practice of sexual violence against men, believing those who do come forward to be “crazy” or clandestine homosexuals. Their reluctance to question this further reduces the kind of support they are able to give, and increases the likelihood that they contribute to the survivor’s stigmatisation and isolation. Such is the lack of training for this particular issue that those survivors who have sought medical help have previously been referred to gynaecologists under the edict: “women’s help for women’s problems”. This only serves the purpose behind sexual violence against men further – men feel ashamed and as if they can’t come forward, because rape is something that only happens to women. In their mind, the whole world is against them; disbelieving and mocking.
It is therefore imperative that medical workers, investigators, counsellors, and others working on the ground with refugees and survivors of the conflict are trained to be able to question and examine potential male survivors of sexual violence, and to recognise the signs and symptoms of a male rape survivor, even if they are initially unwilling to confirm this out loud. This is essential not just to bring awareness to this widespread issue, or even to relieve the emotional and psychological trauma of the victims; it could in fact be medically urgent. Infections from the forcefulness of the rape are not uncommon, and ‘rape plus’ – the rape of men to deliberately facilitate the transmitting of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases – is often wielded as a weapon. Lives could be prolonged, or even saved, with this recognition.
Acknowledging and addressing male victims of sexual violence is not only the principled action for any humanitarian to want to take, but it is also a vital part of the solution to support the women and girls whose brutal attacks are propelled by the same gendered assumptions. Therefore, the reluctance to tackle this silent crisis is completely unfounded. To tackle sexual violence against men is to make advancements in combatting of all forms of gender-based violence. Immediate action is vital, in order to battle the sexist untruths that provoke these lies, and to bring some form of justice to the long-suffering silenced men of Uganda.
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