If you saw a man attacking a woman physically in public would you intervene? Most likely you would. Now would you intervene if you saw a woman attacking a man?
Discussions about sexual violence in conflict overwhelmingly tend to focus on women and girls as victims and men as perpetrators. Indeed it is true that statistics support the fact that women make up the majority of victims of gender-based violence and discrimination. But what about the men and boys who are also victims? Men and boys have also been sexually abused in conflicts. We don’t know the full scale of this crisis globally and how many have experienced sexual violence precisely because this has been such a hidden issue. Sexual violence against men and boys has been reported in over 25 conflict-affected countries in the last decade. And this may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Many men complain that one keep on empowering women – but who comes to talk to them about regaining their dignity and listening to their problems?
As humanitarians, we are guided by humanitarian principles including impartiality, meaning that aid should be provided according to needs. By not considering the specific vulnerabilities and needs of men and boys in humanitarian crises alongside that of women and girls, we are violating this principle. Considering men and boys in humanitarian response is not only the principled action to take, it is also a vital part of the solution to support women and girls in crises. So why are we still so reluctant to tackle this silent crisis?
Gender Based Violence occurs as a result of normative gender based role expectations or inequality of power in relationships between genders, in a specific society or culture. However much we speak of “Gender Equality”, as far as history takes us, we have experienced a male dominated society where masculinity has prevailed over femininity. Women are widely discriminated and victimized, and this in most societies is normality and the statistics attest to it.
Research has however found that there is a great deal of pressure on young men to live up to certain standards of manhood. What is perhaps less clear is how such understandings are linked to gender inequality and the high prevalence of gender-based violence in our society.
For example, the expectations on men to be dominant and powerful, and women to be passive and subservient in relationships can lead to the acceptance of intimate partner violence. As one young woman stated: “We think that it’s normal, when he hits me, he loves me. We are not aware that person is supposed to respect you.” The pressure on men to be financial providers in relationships and families can also lead to situations of violence. Facing the realities of poverty and unemployment, many young men experience feelings of dis-empowerment and frustration at not being able to provide.
While it is true that women are mostly affected by gender-based violence, there is a need to appreciate that men can also be abused, emotionally, sexually and physically. Young people said that boys are often raped, but that these acts are stigmatized, kept hidden and unreported. Men are abused by their women partners, but this is not understood to be a reality. In general, it is difficult for men to speak out about sexual and other forms of abuse solely to the attitude that men are tough and invulnerable, and do not express their pain or suffering. Reporting to the police is particularly difficult because men will be laughed at and ridiculed – “the police think you cannot be abused as a man”.
Concepts like gender and sexual- and gender-based violence should be expanded, re-evaluated or at least used consistently and with care, rather than solely applying to women, and thereby excluding men. Where multiple human rights are impacted, the harm caused should also be considered in multiple categories because this would allow for a more comprehensive view of the suffering of male (and other) victims. This is not only essential for providing such victims with access to adequate protection, but also for us to learn more about forms and manifestations of sexual violence and to go against self-confirming data. It is now time to adequately integrate a ‘gender’ perspective into the experiences of both men and women.
A multidimensional method of not only revealing the multitude of identities that a ‘body’ carries (including race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, social class, etc.) but also of making sure that we do not organize human rights in a ‘one-identity’ where only one identity enables a person to claim a right.
“Equality means that a wife is equal to her husband, a sister to her brother. Not better, not worse. They are equal. It isn’t enough to simply talk about equality. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough simply to believe in it. One must work at it,” says Meghan Markle.