Sexual Violence in Conflict Perpetrated Against Men, by Isolde Hatgis-Kessell

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Sexual Violence in Conflict Perpetrated Against Men, by Isolde Hatgis-Kessell (18-year-old pre-college summer intern at RSGF).

 

On 42nd Street and 1st Avenue sits a tall, steel, heavily protected building. The decisions, leaders, and day to day work that occurs inside reveals the importance and power of the organization to which it is home. The United Nations, since its inception, has represented the fight for human rights, peace, and fairness. Throughout the building are pictures, drawings, and sculptures representing every race and ethnicity, values, and goals for the world. The massive halls, high ceilings, and intense security reveals the stature and power of the organization creating a daunting and intimidating setting. Simply knowing the potential that the U.N. has for change gives any experience inside the building a sense of importance. I have only visited the United Nations building as an observer of a conference, but I can only imagine and hope to one day revisit as an action for change. To speak at the United Nations in front of delegates from across the globe is to speak as if whatever you say can influence the next global policy, it is to bring greater awareness to people around the world, and most importantly it is to advocate at the highest level in that hope that change will occur. 


Prior to attending the U.N. conference marking the 10th anniversary of the mandate on sexual violence in conflict, I was almost entirely unaware that men and boys were also victims and survivors of sexual violence in conflict. The stereotype of men as perpetrators and women as victims in the context of sexual violence was ingrained in my mind. The story of one man, however, completely changed my preconceived notions of sexual violence in conflict. Out of a predominantly female-focused panel, there was one male survivor who shared his story - his name was Mr. Aimé Moninga. While listening to Mr. Moninga speak to a crowd of hundreds of people, his strength and genuine desire to be part of a change that will help millions across the globe was apparent. Through speaking to him personally at the end of the conference, I realized that this man, who had experienced the worst of humanity, had rebuilt his life and taken his experiences and to help other male survivors and their familie. While Mr. Moninga was able to access support and then moved from being a victim to a survivor to a gobally recognized advocate, his personal journey is not yet shared by hundreds of male victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Today, the vast majority of male survivors still struggle to reach emergency medical assistance and psychosocial support services, and have no hope of receiving justice within environments that do not have the power or will or resources to enforce U.N resolutions.


There are a multitude of reasons why victims of sexual violence, regardless of gender, do not come forward; fear, shame, denial, etc. It is widely agreed upon that women are targeted for sexual violence as a mechanism to exert power and establish an unequal and submissive dynamic within society. One male victim of conflict-related sexual violence said the goal of his male and female armed perpetrators was to emasculate their male victims “to the extent you feel you no longer want to be head of the family." When men become the target of sexual violence, it is a direct attack on their identity; male victims no longer feel like men in their own eyes or those of their families and communities. Traditional concepts of masculinity that prevail in many localities around the world are exacerbated by religious and cultural beliefs that men are superior to women. Thus, when men become victims of sexual violence they feel inferior to their other male peers. Responding appropriately to conflict-related sexual violence against men is further complicated by the widely held perception of gay people, particularly in Middle Eastern and African regions. Due to strict religious interpretations, homosexuality is considered one of the greatest sins, and, in many areas within these regions this extends to sodomy also being considered a crime. When the act of sexual violence perpetrated against men is equated with culturally determined notions of homosexuality, male victims fear coming forward for emergency medical assistance and to report what was done to them. Interestingly, the male perpetrators of these crimes are rarely discussed in terms of perpetrating acts of homosexuality.  


There many ways to look at methods that seek to prevent sexual violence in areas plagued with conflict. However, given the context of war-ridden countries such as the DRC, Guinea, and Syria, I believe the most effective way to approach prevention must begin with acknowledging and understanding that sexual violence in conflict is used as a tactic and weapon of war and terrorism. If we look at sexual violence in the context of warfare, the most obvious and effective place to begin, is with a country’s military. It is important to focus on soldiers as well as those in higher positions who lead, plan and facilitate the violence. The United Nations method to prevent sexual violence in conflict related areas is grounded in “amplifying advocacy, improving coordination and accountability, and supporting country efforts to prevent conflict-related sexual violence and respond effectively to the needs of survivors." The U.N. does not yet provide any direct action to help prevent sexual violence in conflict, rather it simply blindly trusts efforts made by different countries and seems to disregard whether they are effective or not. The evidence of the U.N.’s inaction lies in the numbers: “Over 70% of listed state and non-state parties are persistent perpetrators and have appeared in the annex of the Secretary General’s annual report for more than five years. Only one party has so far been delisted.” When the U.N. does not hold its own member countries accountable for their crimes, perpetrators are able to continue to employ an illegal and inhumane tactic without fear of punishment. Research has repeatedly concluded that “the most important predictor of sexual violence in all cases is that the victim is in an environment where the perpetrator can commit violence or abuse with a high degree of impunity.” Given the broken judicial infrastructure in conflict ridden regions, it is the role of the United Nations to ensure perpetrators, especially militaries and governments, do not go unpunished.


In order for real, large-scale change to occur, the use of sexual violence by governments and militaries needs to be considered a human rights violation, in the same way that chemical and biological weapons are considered when used. Both are methods of controlling and exerting power over a group of people, namely by instilling fear in civilians to prevent uprisings and force compliance, but only the latter is treated as a gross violation of the Geneva Convention. The lack of meaningful intervention measures and punishment of offenders being enforced by the U.N. for conflict-related sexual violence, has forced considerably smaller and underfunded organizations to step up and make a change. One of the most laudable organizations is the Men of Hope Refugee Association Uganda (MOHRAU); an extension of the Refugee Law Project based in Kampala. The Men of Hope hold training sessions and workshops for both police and military peacekeeping platoons in which they train soldiers to recognize male victims, ask the right questions to ensure cases are correctly documented, and provide appropriate referral to the most effective counselling and humanitarian aid for male survivors and their families. The act of directly hosting these workshops has a multitude of benefits, including the ability to control the information being shared rather than simply relying on another party to do so accurately and hearing feedback from the source. As one of the female soldiers commented on the awareness level among her colleagues prior to the training workshop, “Most (members) did not know that even men in combat or even men in civilian can be raped.” Sexual violence in conflict was, for an extended period of time, almost a “secret” tactic of war. While this idea has notably changed concerning women, it remains true regarding men. Until the crimes are reported and appropriately documented, it remains unknown exactly how many male victims of conflict-related sexual violence exist.


Working with the military, specifically in conflict-ridden areas, is a key part in preventing sexual violence, however, it also poses a certain difficulty. In war-torn areas, the military holds one of the most important roles. Often in these regions, soldiers become some of the most powerful people in the country, with access to resources unavailable to the masses and with a high degree of impunity thus allowing them to become perpetrators. In these very common situations in which soldiers are committing sexual crimes, another method must be introduced. The United Nations must hold the leaders who implicitly or explicitly condone this type of warfare accountable. Imposing sanctions, threatening expulsion from the organization, and sending in peacekeepers who are received training and will themselves be held accountable should they themselves commit acts of sexual violence. Without the threat of serious consequences, corrupt governments and dangerous leaders will continue to employ the barbaric tactic. Organizations, such as Men Of Hope, simply do not have the power on their own to hold nations accountable. 


One approach when training soldiers is to focus on military groups in countries that neighbor highly vulnerable and conflict-ridden areas. Oftentimes people living in regions plagued by war or extreme violence flee to neighboring areas, thus, it is important for the soldiers in those areas to be able to recognize and help male victims. For example, the majority of Men Of Hope’s work is rooted in Kampala, Uganda which has an extremely important border with the Democratic Republic of Congo where sexual violence is extremely common. As of 2018, Uganda hosted 1.1 million refugees predominantly coming from South Sudan and the DRC. Accessibility to refugees and close proximity to countries with extremely high rates of sexual violence enables the organization to maximize the effectiveness of their work. There remains, however, a downside to the location of Men of Hope that they have recognized and aim to fix. Countries that are in close proximity to war-torn areas are at risk of falling to conflict themselves. Thus, it is imperative that workshops are held within these regions that discuss the gravity and severity of committing crimes of sexual violence, teach soldiers how to treat and protect victims, and teach soldiers how to recongnize whether their colleagues become perpetrators. 


The roots of the United Nations work to prevent sexual violence should be those of education and accountability. The lack of knowledge about sexual violence against men and boys around the global can no longer be tolerated specifically in countries where males are at a high risk and also where there are few laws to protect male victims. Sexual violence must be studied, regarded, and treated as an unacceptable tactic of war by military personnel at all levels, governments, and high-level organisations. Furthermore, countries that condone the tactic must be held accountable by the U.N. through sanctions and other serious consequences. The task of aiding male survivors and preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) can no longer rest solely on the backs of underfunded organizations, it must become the responsibility of the entire international community.

 

As an 18 year-old girl, sexual violence towards females around the world has always has always felt like a personal issue. However, as women who have faced thousands of problems rooted in gender, it is our obligation to ensure that gender-based oppression does not also occur to male victims and survivors around the world. Regardless of gender, conflict-related sexual violence is one the most tortourous and painful experiences any human could endure. It is no longer acceptable for it to be the obligation of one man, to represent all male victims at conference about conflict-related sexual violence.  If the goal remains to eliminate CRSV against females with no or at best minimal consideration of male victims, sexual violence will continue to plague our world. 

 

 

Mr. Aime Moninga (President, Men of Hope Refugee Association Uganda; Winner of EU 2020 Human Rights Defender Award). Speaker at 10th Anniversary of Mandate on Sexual Violence in Conflict at the United Nations, NY).

While undertaking my pre-college summer internship, I learned more about the work of Men of Hope and how difficult it is for this amazing support group to secure grants to fund their advocacy work. Thank you for helping me to raise funding for the Men of Hope.

 

 



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