June 2014
Article The World We Want The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Male rape: the forgotten human rights taboo?

<blockquote>A struggle with masculinity</blockquote>

“As a gay man you’ll be afraid of opening a case. People will make fun of you and call you a woman,” said Nicholas* candidly. “We are taught that a man can’t cry, a man has to provide. As a boy, if you are raped, you feel a sense of shame.”

Nicholas is openly gay and a survivor of child rape. I met him outside a church in Springs, a town 50km east of Johannesburg. It was hot and dusty; I was exhausted from an intensive week of researching in townships and I was carrying out an interview on a subject that is so often denied by the victim.

Nicholas had a way with words that put me at ease – his responses to my gently-constructed questions were nonchalant. Though he had never reported the rape - he was assaulted by his uncle aged 9 - there was something about his body language that suggested he had come to terms with it, albeit perhaps reluctantly. I asked him whether religion had played a key part in his rehabilitation. He laughed and cracked a smile. The answer was an unequivocal ‘no’.

His reluctance to come forward isn’t unusual. Many victims of rape struggle to speak about the assault, even years after having therapy for the trauma. Some even excuse the perpetrator. A 2009 report by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) into ‘rape culture’ found that 28% of the men questioned in the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces admitted to raping a woman or girl. In addition, 3% confessed to raping another man or boy, and 10% of the men and boys who responded had been forced into having sex with another man. Disturbingly, the number of male victims is believed to be much higher.

Twenty years later, and not only does Nicholas see similar issues preventing male rape victims coming forward, he also sees how teenage boys are affected by the pressure to live up to the views of what masculinity is. Unemployment, poor education – Unicef data says school attendance for boys is 41% – pressure to have a relationship but not having the money to support a partner or family … Boys are being told how to be men but are struggling to live up to the expectations. Many turn to drugs to escape the struggle.

“The biggest problem we’re facing is a drug called nyaope – a cocktail of heroin, dagga [cannabis] and rat poison. It’s bigger than poverty, unemployment, HIV and Aids. It’s killing the younger generation. They take this drug to get high, and because it gives them that edge they will sleep with anyone – often for money. They will even kill to get what they want,” he said matter-of-factly.

<blockquote>Unrecognised and reported</blockquote>

I had gone to South Africa to report on the role of men in township culture. My brief was to explain how they are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and how this leads to sexual violence against women. The interview with Nicholas, which had been arranged at my request, turned out to be the most insightful of my stay.

Earlier in the week, I had asked one of the facilitators of a community project set up to provide protection and support to victims of sexual violence, whether any men had come to them to disclose an assault. They hadn’t. I wasn’t surprised by this, but it made me realise there was a bigger story to be reported. The brief I had been given appeared to be recycling the formulaic female victim/male perpetrator narrative. I didn’t want to dismiss the experiences of the female victims who had opened up to me, but I also realised that a story about male rape was a harder sell.

Aside from an award-winning article published by the Guardian in 2011, about male rape as a weapon of war in Uganda, there are few notable stories on the subject. In fact the Guardian’s article was so unique, it led the UN to change their definition of rape to cover male victims.

Since then, the UN refugee agency has published guidelines for its staff and external aid workers on how to identify and support male victims. And last year, men and boys were named as victims by a UN Security Council resolution; 2106 called on member states to hold perpetrators of male sexual violence responsible for their actions.

Like the community project I spoke to, many development organisations still struggle to provide adequate support for male victims. A combination of ignorance, lack of awareness and lack of funding has exacerbated the situation. Male rape is woven into the fabric of conflict and used as an instrument of torture.

In an email exchange last year, Augusta Del Zotto, the co-author of the 2002 paper ‘Human Rights’ Last Taboo?’, told me: “Policymakers need to de-gender (war) rape and see it for what it is.” Part of Del Zotto’s paper included research into 4,076 NGOs that dealt with wartime sexual violence; it concluded that only 3% referenced male experiences in their literature and advocacy material. A decade later and there has been some progress, but it has either been too little or too slow.

<blockquote>In a state of hearsay?</blockquote>

A few days before writing this, War Child (who I’ve previously been critical of) ran a workshop at the Institute of Overseas Development, on recommendations for addressing sexual violence against men and boys. How much of a long-term practical impact the discussions that took place will have is unknown.

The problem says Stefan, a Kampala-based aid worker who has experience of working with former child soldiers, is that talking about male rape is fruitless if it doesn’t lead to action. Given that Del Zotto believes that NGOs are still failing to consider male rape in their policies and advocacy material, does he think male rape is in a state of hearsay? “Most definitely. There has been a lot of chatter on the issue recently, but it’s rare to find an organisation that has a system in place to deal with it appropriately. Relief workers don’t always relate to the idea that a man can be raped … they need to be destigmatised.”

Stefan reminded me of something Nicholas had said: “When a man is raped and he reports it, they [the authorities] will assume he’s gay.”

It is for reasons like this that stories of male rape go unreported and victims unrecognised. There is a deep sense of shame attached to not being able to live up to society’s gender roles and expectation of masculinity. Nicholas knows this all too well. He told me that if he hadn’t had the support and love of his family, things might have turned out differently. He was referring to suicide.

<i>* Name has been changed for his protection</i>

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