Why you should care
Because men as well as women are being sexually assaulted in the Syrian conflict.
In early 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees assigned Stanford University researcher Sarah Chynoweth a seemingly impossible task: Look into male rape and sexual torture in the Syrian conflict. Chynoweth knew that many women and girls were being targeted for rape and other sexual violence, but the agency had no data on sexual assaults against males, or even if they were happening.
Chynoweth assumed that boys and possibly a few men had been targeted in prisons or other detention centers. But she surmised that she had been sent looking for a problem that hardly existed. And even if it did, she assumed no one would talk, given that male-on-male sex is forbidden in Islamic culture.
She couldn’t have been more mistaken. Although her statistics are based on preliminary data, Chynoweth found that:
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of male refugees in Jordan experienced sexual assault while in Syrian detention.
“The accounts were heartrending and horrific. They were also abundant,” Chynoweth wrote in “We Keep It in Our Heart” — Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in the Syria Crisis, a UNHCR report released in October. “As I met with more and more refugees, I received similar responses, and was inundated with heartbreaking stories.”
While wartime rape disproportionately affects women, sexual violence against men and boys occurs under a variety of circumstances designed to inflict deep psychological pain, especially in regions with entrenched traditional gender roles. The UNHCR report, which studied refugee asylums in Kurdistan and Lebanon as well as Jordan, identified four scenarios: conflict-related sexual torture in detention; assault against gay and bisexual men by opportunistic perpetrators; pedophilia suffered by young boys in refugee communities; and sexual exploitation of boys and men in countries of asylum.
“Sexual violence isn’t used systematically in every conflict — there is significant variance,” Chynoweth says. When taken into custody, the victimized men were subject to electric shocks, rape in stress positions with pipes and other objects, as well as beatings and point-blank shootings of the genitals. In the camps, older boys and adult men used mobile phones to photograph unsuspecting boys while they were undressing or using the bathroom and then blackmailed them into performing sexual acts. Finally, males were assaulted rather than females due to the widespread belief in these refugee communities that the rape of a male is less harmful to his reputation.
Indeed, male sexual assault can impact men just as much as women, according to psychologists and psychiatrists. In all three refugee asylums where Chynoweth conducted research, survivors isolated themselves, withdrawing from families and communities. Friends and family members of survivors used the same vocabulary — that the survivor “wanted to die,” that he had become “a different person.” The family as a whole became stigmatized, as survivors were perceived as failing in their primary roles as protectors.
Some humanitarian organizations have begun to recognize the issue and provide basic services for male survivors, mostly by including them in programs for women and girls or LGBT persons. Generally, however, nongovernmental organizations, local organizations and police may not know how to identify signs of sexual violence in males. And if authorities are not hostile or dismissive of male victims outright, they may only be attuned to anal rape rather than other forms of assault.
Due to steep cuts in U.S. aid to the 2018 international affairs budget, which affect overseas development aid and support for U.N. agencies, male survivors are not likely to receive tailored help anytime soon. Most organizations providing care to male survivors of sexual violence are local human rights groups in dangerous settings where few, if any, international humanitarian agencies operate. Many of those that do, rely on U.N. funding that has been slashed.
Nonetheless, Chynoweth says she feels “a strong duty” to ensure that these men’s voices are heard. “The impact of sexual violence ripples across families and communities — it is not just a women’s or men’s issue,” she says. “My hope is that humanitarian agencies will increasingly address it, so that services and care are put in place for all survivors in every crisis, and that the men and women I met with will someday find peace and healing.”
* Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated a statistic on unwanted sexual contact or sexual harassment among male refugees in asylum communities.