Newsletter. The invisible problem. Sexual violence against boys and men

Newsletter No. 3 June 2021 The invisible problem: What do we know about sexual violence against boys and men?

30.06 2021

Overview of content:

The invisible problem:
What do we know about sexual violence against boys and men?
Download the MHHRI GBV manual
Upcoming Events

Dear friends and colleagues, 

We have just commemorated June 19th as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In recent years, attention to sexual violence against women in war and conflict areas has increased. At the same time, there has been less attention to the fact that boys and men also are exposed. This can contribute both to increased stigma and lack of professional help. MHHRI have received funding to write a manual based on our previous work with helpers working with survivors of gender-based violence. This time we will focus on helpers working with boys and men being exposed to sexual abuse in war and conflict situations or during the migration process.

Living with trauma in the country of arrival

Many male refugees who arrive or live in the country of refugee, live with the trauma that is too difficult for most people to understand. Some have even experienced sexual abuse on their travel to a safe haven.

Abuse is a heavy and brutal topic that often can be difficult to talk about. But the precondition for the survivors to be heard, seen, and helped is that we, as a society, are aware of the problem. How did the abuse take place, and what are the short as well as long term consequences? Knowledge about how the problem can be met must be strengthened and made available, especially among those who in their daily work meet with boys and men that might have been abused.


Invisible problem

Sexual abuse of men breaks with the traditional image of a man who can both defend himself and retaliate and has therefore often not been taken seriously. In addition, shame and guilt contribute to men failing to report sexual violence in captivity, in connection with acts of war, or in connection with flight. This causes the problem to remain invisible and that help becomes difficult to seek and find.

Society owes vulnerable boys and men to acknowledge the problem and take it seriously. Space must be opened to take the difficult conversation. The fact that men do not ask for help, and that helpers may rarely encounter stories of this type of abuse, does not mean that the problem doesn’t exist.

Research in conflict-affected areas in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) found that almost a quarter of the men had experienced sexual violence. Another survey showed that almost half of the men living in a conflict-affected part of Sudan had experienced or witnessed sexual abuse. In Liberia, one-third of former male soldiers reported that they had experienced sexual violence in various contexts, another survey reports.

Disabled and LGBTQ people

Furthermore, in addition to women and girls, also male refugees alongside vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ + and people with disabilities experience sexual violence in the migration process. Twenty percent of rapes reported to the Gender-based Violence Information Management System (GBV IMS) in Lebanon from January to May 2016 were from boys and men. A study among refugees and asylum seekers in Morocco shows that men were victims in 53 of 142 reported rape incidents. A survey by Médecins Sans Frontières found that 17.2% of the 429 refugees who reported sexual abuse while in transit through Mexico fleeing violence in Central America were men.

We need to strengthen the focus and knowledge about this topic. As a society that receives refugees and others with such experiences, it is vital that we have a support system that is prepared and available. It is an important goal that survivors know where they can seek help, both in the health service system and in asylum reception centers. The helper should be prepared and able to meet the person in the best possible way, past attitudes of taboo and shame.

Sexual violence as a weapon

Not all countries have criminalized rape or sexual abuse of men. At the same time, there is little doubt that all forms of sexual violence in conflict must be considered a violation of international human rights and therefore considered illegal.

Sexual violence in war and conflict is often referred to as “weapons in war” and can in many contexts also be described as torture or inhuman treatment. The intention is to humiliate, control and intimidate a population by breaking down social ties and dignity.

In many societies, it will be taboo for men to talk openly about torture, and in particular about sexual abuse. This makes the topic extra painful and difficult to deal with. A stronger effort to shed light on this in the public debate is needed. At the same time, there will always be a difficult balance with regard to what kind of information is presented, and the possibility that it may also be misused in an ongoing conflict.

More awareness and knowledge about the problem

The first step is to recognize and raise awareness of the problem. We cannot fight a problem that we do not know exists.

Everyone’s voice is important and necessary to prevent sexual violence. By spreading more awareness and knowledge about the problem, we are increasing the number of allies who can support survivors and prevent sexual violence. We need to know where, when and how abuse occurs, to be able to do something about the problem, and to know where to use our resources. We need to know about the problem in order to do something about it. Change starts with awareness.

Working for a society without sexual violence means that we as a community take into account the needs of the most marginalised and invisible survivors.

In 2021 MHHRI in collaboration with The Norwegian Council for Mental Health (NCMH) have received funding from Dam Foundation and Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) to develop a handbook for helpers working with boys and men exposed to sexual violence in war and conflict situations and to share information related to the topic.

All manuals can be downloaded from the MHHRI website

There are three different manuals, which respectively address working with women, with boys and men, and with children who have experienced sexual violence.

The manuals are translated into several languages. The page numbers in each manual remain the same across languages. This allows survivors and helpers to work from copies in their preferred language and read the same content on the same pages. It also makes it easier to teach participants when participants and trainers work in more than one language. The manuals include a toolbox. Survivors can use it individually to regulate their own emotions through grounding exercises or in collaboration with a helper. Helpers can also use grounding exercises to take care of themselves as helpers.

Upcoming Events 

IRCT symposium in Georgia
2021 IRCT Scientific Symposium & General Assembly
Overcoming the Extreme: Life after Torture
2021 in Tbilisi, Georgia (more information will follow)

Cinema Human Rights and Advocacy
16th edition of the Summer School
in Cinema Human Rights and Advocacy
30 August – 8 September 2021

4th European Conference on Domestic Violence
September 13th – 15th 2021 | online from Slovenia

Global challenges in health, migration, and equity
28. September – 1. October Bergen | Norway

Psychology in Action –
Promoting Equity and Justice in an Age of Uncertainty

22-24. October

22nd Nordic Conference For Professionals
Working With Traumatised Refugees
Rescheduled 9-10.12.2021 | Helsinki, Finland

The 11th International Society for Health and Human Rights (ISHHR) Conference
All being well, the International Society for Health and Human Rights looks forward to welcoming you to the 11th ISHHR conference and program of capacity building in Medellin, Colombia 2021/2022 (tentative dates).
The ISHHR Conference and Capacity-Building Workshops will focus on themes relevant in a Colombian context, for both local and international participants, in cooperation with Región and Reconectando.

  • Strengthening Women’s Rights to Mental Health and Freedom from Violence – by changing behavior, practices and attitudes and facilitating safe and adequate care.
  • Supporting Human Rights Defenders who risk their lives in difficult and dangerous situations, side by side with families of victims of enforced disappearance and internally displaced (IDPs).
  • Treatment methods after traumatic human rights abuse. Remembering the body, promoting resilience; arts and culture, traditional and indigenous approaches.
  • Post-conflict reconciliation, reconstruction and re-socialisation Community mental health, justice human ecology, ethnic approaches to social action, empowerment and reconciliation.

We appreciate feedback and comments 

The Mental Health and Human Rights Info Newsletter is a newsletter with the aim to provide insight on a certain subject across the scope of our work; human rights violations in war and conflict areas and mental health. Our intention is to deliver a newsletter as a short “lecture” where you can find relevant information regarding a specific subject with a mental health perspective.

We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions on other issues you would like to see in this newsletter or if you are planning an event on related issues, please let us know so we can include your event in our newsletter.

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Take care – and wishing you all the best.

Sincerely yours,
Elisabeth Langdal, Sara Skilbred, Mónica Orjuela, the MHHRI team
Mental Health and Human Rights Info