In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a young Kabuli man was returning to the city when he was stopped at a checkpoint then forced at gunpoint to shave his hair and beard in accordance with the religious ideological standards that were being enforced.
A generation of war-exposed youths later and there is minimal referencing in the academic literature to the experiences of how a man’s body is controlled during conflict.
During this time, however, great strides have been undertaken in the legal community to protect human rights during conflict and for those seeking refuge from persecution including the definition of gender-based violence (GBV).
However, gender-based violence seldom refers to acts of violence against boys and men.
Definitions from the United Nations and the World Health Organization actively specify women to be the victims of GBV. More exploratory academic literature or introductions to GBV by NGOs or the numerous institutes established in the long wake of recognising GBV as a weapon of war since the days of Bosnia and Rwanda state that boys and men do experience GBV but the extent to which is unknown.
The purpose of this article is to ask why and to put forward several suggestions for the role of academics, policy-makers, NGOs, health workers and humanitarian actors as we continue to analyze the phenomenon of GBV during conflict.
The breakdown of families and community bonds are well-evidenced as some of the long-term aims for using sexual violence as a weapon of war; it is a strategic measure to separate and divide.
Stigma and shame of being a victim of sexual violence exists and continues beyond peace and reconciliation efforts after the conflict has ended.
The husband who abandons his wife because she was raped fits neatly into some dominant feminist frameworks whereby men are the perpetrators of maintaining cultures of taboo and shame based on placing honor as the core of a woman’s existence.
Yet in some of the initial media coverage coming from Syria in the early days of the conflict when sexual violence was quickly becoming recognized as structuring strategies such as creating mass refugee exoduses, men were interviewed and expressed the shame they felt that they were not able to protect their wives or daughters.
Some men felt too burdened by this shame to consider themselves any longer as worthy to be a husband. Other men were coerced by social pressures relating to the shame of being married to a rape victim to leave their families before being marginalized from their community or workplace and not being able to sustain any financial income.
However, such shame and stigmas for this counter-narrative of how men are also secondary victims of GBV are also under documented.
The woman, ultimately a part of the man, in societies where sexual gender-based violence is most effective in destroying cultures and communities, is the direct recipient of the act of violence; but the man is the intended victim.
We need to stop thinking that violence is individualized, and that it is self-contained. Violence is not merely an injury to the body; it is a wound of war on an individual’s narrative. And these undocumented stories and metaphorical blindness to other forms of GBV towards boys and men are at risk of becoming the modern day global injustice; unseen crimes with unseen victims.
As an expert witness on asylum and refugee immigration legal cases, transcripts between the client and Home Officers are often very challenging to read.
Stories are discounted, challenged, disputed, and denied. Similarly, in comparison to the disbelief that surrounds sexual gender-based violence, non-sexual gender-based violence in men and boys is subject to degradation and prohibition of agency for an individual to gain ownership of their experiences—torture, fleeing forced conscription, persecution due to non-conformity of extreme religious ideologies, disabilities due to combat injuries, and loss of land, family, and identity. Men are not afforded stories of suffering.
The denial of a man’s suffering impacts on mental health.
This is a further increment in the case for recognizing non-sexual gender-based violence towards boys and men. In some cases, war narratives manifest in psychotic and delusional states, not otherwise permitted to be addressed by either the individual or society.
Men living in chronic conflict suffer deep trauma, loss of hope and sense of identity yet societal space is still neglectful of the need for dialogue with men as victims rather than men as perpetrators.
Men are not received as victims despite the narratives evolving in humanitarian spaces of violence and torture endured during and when fleeing conflict to seek asylum elsewhere—physical violence that was determined by the individual as a male in parallel to sexual violence towards women seeking refugee status.
Similarly, in the requests I have received to develop protocols on training medical doctors in humanitarian settings on cultural factors related to disclosure of sexual GBV, the emphasis is solely on female victims.
However, male victims of sexual violence are a real yet hidden issue and evidence gathered so far such as from the conflicts in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo suggests that the figures are tremendous. Given that stigma and shame in being a male victim of SGBV is weighted by equally significant cultural and social forms of moral distress particularly in countries where male to male relationships are taboo and/or illegal, then it is shocking that humanitarian responses are not accounting for male victims that are remaining silent yet requiring both medical and psychological treatment.
Thus, classifying gender based-violence to include both sexual and non-sexual gender-based violence for men is highly problematic in the context of current discourses. Despite these challenges, though, there is a moral—and legal—imperative to source and uncover hidden [war] crimes that are remaining shrouded in shame and silence. It could be possible that we are on the crest of the wave that rose just before the defining of sexual violence during conflict took place.
Considering the fundamental religious nature of contemporary conflicts, it is likely that there are new forms of gender-based violence that need to be explored as potential crimes against humanity. Perhaps there is a need to register the controlling of men to conform to extreme ideologies as religious gender-based violence, which targets the male body, emotion, and action.
The last point for this article to mention is regarding the first step ahead—namely, to create a space where men can suffer. Women are saturated with references of the bearers of sufferers—in poetry, folk tales, or proverbs that state a woman’s place is ‘ghor yar khar’ (home or grave) as well as in academic discourse.
Conceptualizing men as suffering will require a shift in dominant rhetoric especially in light of the way male refugees have been portrayed as perpetrators since the emergence of the European refugee crisis. Without creating an image of the male victim, however, stories will continue to remain undocumented.
Dr Ayesha Ahmad is an academic specializing in mental health, culture, and psychological trauma and is a lecturer in Medical Ethics and Law at St Georges University of London and an Honorary Lecturer at the Institute for Global Health, University College London.