Hidden Victims: Sexual Violence Against Boys and Men in Conflict

“Sexual violence against boys and men in situations of armed conflict and displacement is a critical problem. It hasn’t been given the attention it deserves by the international community up to now, making this initiative even more important,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC), Ms. Virginia Gamba in her opening remarks at a High-Level event on the issue on 11 December 2017. The event was co-organised by the Permanent Missions of Liechtenstein, UK, Switzerland, the All Survivors Project and the Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination at Princeton University.

Among the six grave violations against children in armed conflict established by the Security Council, “documenting and verifying incidents of rape and sexual violence is often far more challenging,” highlighted SRSG Gamba. Reasons for this comprise a victim’s fear of repercussions by perpetrators and societal stigmatisation, lack of appropriate accountability mechanisms as well as extrajudicial arrangements which compel victims to remain silent.

Representatives from Member States participating in the event also recognised that the issues of sexual violence against boys and men has long been taboo and underdiscussed, often as a result of stigmatisation, problematic legal frameworks, and norms of gender identity.

These factors may arguably be even more pronounced when boys are affected, as the vast majority of cases verified by country task forces on monitoring and reporting pertain to girls. Nevertheless, in several conflict situations covered by CAAC including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, incidents of rape and sexual violence against boys were documented and verified, which is indicative of a larger phenomenon.

During the discussions, Ms. Gamba emphasized the importance to acknowledge that sexual violence against boys is underreported, making their vulnerability to such abuses little understood and the extent of the problem often overlooked in responses and in prevention and protection strategies.

The current lack of information on boys reinforces the perception that the scourge of sexual violence in armed conflict is one that affects primarily, if not exclusively, women and girls – which in turn reinforces stigma, inhibits males from disclosing their experiences, and prevents them from asking for and receiving assistance and demanding justice. In some conflict situations, torture of boys and men often includes sexual degrading acts, rape or threats of rape and sexual violence, leaving emotional and physical scars which can last a lifetime.

The research undertaken by the All Survivors Project should contribute to a better understanding of the issue, which may in turn inform the work of monitors on the ground, including sensitization and training on how to identify and document cases of sexual violence against boys while adhering to the “do no harm” approach.

Lack of legal protection for boys against rape in many countries affected by armed conflict is also concerning, a result of national legislation which fails to recognise and proscribe rape against males. This contributes not only to impunity, but can inform broader social attitudes and responses in which the possibility of sexual violence against males is not acknowledged.

Accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence against boys was also emphasized by other panellists, including legal frameworks consistent with international human rights standards and sufficient resources for boy survivors to realise their right to justice, truth and reparations.

Ms. Gamba reinforced the importance for states to adopt non-discriminatory legislation on sexual violence and to ensure that legal protection against rape and other forms of sexual violence is provided for boys, girls, men and women. Particular attention should also be paid to situations where boys may be at a heightened risk, such as in detention and in the ranks of armed forces and armed groups.

By the end of the event, there was a consensus on the importance to urgently support the continuous research on the topic, and to help strengthen advocacy among all member states to raise awareness and engage further dialogues on the issue of sexual violence against boys and men in armed conflict.