“We are like fish in water, we cry but our tears are washed in water, we cry and our tears are washed away” – Male survivor of CRSV, Isingiro
The above quote summarises the experience and feelings of male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence residing in the Nakivale refugee settlement in western Uganda.
Awareness of sexual violence against men and boys is gradually growing in different parts of the world. They are being acknowledged as victims of such acts, especially rape – partly due to the relentless interventions and actions of activists, researchers, academia, and humanitarian workers in uncovering the darkest aspect of violence perpetrated against men and boys in conflict and post-conflict situations.
Despite the commendable efforts by the various actors in tackling sexual violence in conflict and associated impacts, male survivors of CRSV still look forward to the day when their plea for non-judgemental support is appreciated and attended to, with many looking forward to their tears wiped away as it were, and people to truly begin to listen to and comprehend their unspeakable experiences.
The challenges of male survivors in Uganda in particular seem far from over. Given the history of misconceptions surrounding sexual violence against men and boys, the relationship that obtains in relation to male survivors remains one of fear and reprimands. In a context where existing laws and policies hardly distinguish consensual and non-consensual sex, male survivors often have to grapple with limited safer spaces where they can comfortably disclose their traumatic encounters.
In light of the above, male survivors, more than ever, require a wide range of actors to represent them and advocate for their plights and to create a safer environment that builds trust and enables survivors to confidently and securely narrate their experiences and access the appropriate physical and psychological services they need for healing.
Despite commendable efforts to create safer spaces for male survivors among a select group of humanitarian and development actors, numerous questions remain unanswered. Firstly, what challenges do male survivors face in accessing physical and psychological services? Why do male survivors continue to live in fear amidst relatively commendable research on sexual violence against men and boys? What happens when male survivors continue to live with suppressed pain and yet also exercises social responsibilities in their households and communities? How can we realise a peaceful world when sexual violence experiences of men and boys can be accorded adequate attention and response?
Addressing the above requires that we must reflect upon our readiness to first of all listen to the stories shared by survivors – many of which are undeniably horrific and traumatising. Additionally, key actors on conflict-related sexual violence need to recognise their own level of preparedness to respond and prevent sexual violence in conflict, and above all, the political and practical will to support survivors and their families in overcoming the impacts of sexual violence and associated stigma arising from disclosure.
Whereas the pursuit of disclosure is much needed, we ought to further ponder on how to handle the disclosure once survivors build trust in key actors. This may require that households be strengthened to provide emotional and practical support to survivors during their recovery journey. Recent studies have shown increasing cases of co-victimisation, forced perpetration, and forced witnessing of experiences of acts of sexual violence. As such, it is vital that survivors’ households and family members are adequately prepared to learn about what happened to those they love and care about. Unless such conversations become common place and debates are advanced, creating safe spaces for male survivors to disclose experiences will not mean much in bringing about transformative changes in the lives of survivors, their household members, and the community at large.
Having worked with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence for a decade at Refugee Law Project (RLP), I have interacted with and supported multiple male survivors who have lived with medical complications arising from experiences of sexual violence for several years if not decades, and had not disclosed them to anyone, let alone their household members. The thousands of disclosure enabled by RLP over the years is a result of continuous and progressive institutional work towards building trust, enabling disclosure, and countering stigma and discrimination towards male survivors of sexual violence.
Through my years of interacting with male survivors, and subsequent provision of support to survivors as individuals, couples, and as part of survivor support groups, I have not only learned enormously but received energizing feedback following the successful rehabilitation of male survivors and their spouses. Whereas many have recovered, I also received clients who are hesitant to involve their family members even when we recommend a multi-survivor programming approach which requires that their spouses and household members are also screened for conflict-related harms and, where appropriate, supported.
A statement such as; “I am not comfortable with my family knowing what has happened to me”, is a demonstration that practitioners need not rush survivors toward disclosing their experiences. I further recall an interview with a male survivor from DR Congo, whose son had to drop out of school due to continuous stigmatisation from fellow students following the discovery of what had happened to his father. The frustrating social reprimands started when his father participated in a survivor-led community awareness-raising event on the plight of male survivors in Kampala where some of his classmates attended. Soon after the event, the news of the ‘rape’ of his father spread like wildfire – and with some attributing it to acts of homosexuality. Consequently, the boy dropped out of school as he could not deal with the daily social contempt and psychological humiliation. The boy later left and returned to DR Congo, triggered by the experiences of stigma and humiliation. Since then, his family has not heard from him as attempts to trace him have not come to fruition yet.
Clearly, the impact of the disclosure can sometimes strain the capacity of family members to handle the visualisation of the narrative, the associated pain, and further community shame and stigma. Whereas the above scenario could be looked at as a one-off, it highlights the need for continuous professional support for individual survivors and their families in addition to appreciating the contextual risks that may arise following disclosure. Whereas advocating for enabling environment for all survivors is critical, advancing conversations on our readiness to deal with associated consequences and unintended negative consequences is equally important and shouldn’t be overlooked.
RLP’s innovative Screen-Refer-Support-Document (SRSD Model) has over the years fronted conversations on creating enabling environments but also advocated for a Multi-Survivor Programme (MSP) of enabling disclosure, which advocates for intervention to individual survivors as an entry point but later expands support to their household members. Herein, RLP has and continues to support individual survivors but also work closely with their families through robust informed consent processes. While this approach has so far proven helpful and constructive in supporting survivors through their journey of recovery, healing, individual agency and advocacy.
As actors keen on progressive cultures where all forms of violence are denounced, it is crucial to (re)consider our approaches in addressing the legacies of conflict-related sexual violence while being fully cognisant of the aftermath of disclosure so as to avoid re-traumatizing survivors. Realising this goal requires accompaniment, a keen reflection on the past and current approaches to working with survivors and their families, and boldly yet prudently discussing distress protocols in managing challenges that arise from disclosure – both for male and female survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
I implore you to join the conversation as we commemorate this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, under the theme, Bridging the Gender Digital Divide to Prevent, Address, and Respond to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence!
Mogi Wokorach - SGBVP Officer Gender and Sexuality Programme, Refugee Law Project School of Law MUK