Male and LGBTIQ+ victims of sexual violence overlooked by humanitarians, ICRC says

In certain places 50 to 80 per cent of male victims of torture have also been subjected to sexual violence, according to the ICRC. (Credit: ICRC/Ali Yousef)

The humanitarian sector has payed little attention to sexual violence against men, boys and LGBTIQ+ people, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday.

Women and girls have been known to be disproportionately at risk of rape, forced sterilisation or abortion, harassment and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence in settings of conflict, detention or natural disasters. But the impact of these types of abuses on men, boys and sexual minorities is underestimated and poorly understood, according to a joint report by the ICRC and the Norwegian Red Cross.

“As humanitarian workers we cannot go into an area that has been [struck] by disaster or ravaged by war, without considering that in the middle of the chaos of damaged houses, of families who can't find each other, or that lack food and water, the danger of sexual assaults and violence is at its highest,” said Bernt Apeland, secretary seneral of the Norwegian Red Cross, launching the report.

“It's a crime used to humiliate and damage and sometimes to destroy entire families and the more we look, the more we see,” he added.

The 62-page document, which draws from secondary research on humanitarian contexts including conflict, detention and natural disasters, highlights the different ways in which these groups are victimised.

Sexual minorities are especially at risk, because of discriminatory laws or social practices. For example, transgender women could be victims of “corrective rape”, gay men in countries where homosexuality is outlawed could be ill-treated in detention and young boys can be subjected to prostitution. In certain places, 50 to 80 per cent of men victims of torture in prisons have also suffered sexual violence, the report states.

Physical and mental health services for sexual violence victims in humanitarian contexts are overall lacking, the report warns, but the poor understanding of the needs of men and LGBTIQ+ victims adds another layer of challenges. For instance, men can find it difficult to report abuse due to the stigma that it may carry. Narrow-scope laws can also prevent men and LGBTIQ+ people from seeking justice when, for example, it doesn’t recognise them as victims.

The number of victims worldwide is unknown due to a lack of research, according to the findings, but reports show that it can happen anywhere. “Although nobody knows the exact number of victims, we do know from research that in areas of conflict, the amount is staggering,” said Apeland, noting that “this does not mean that sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls demands any less attention”.

“It's a recognition that a number of victims goes far beyond what the humanitarian community has been able to grasp until now, and that we must work much better to ensure that all people get the help they need.”

The report also points out that humanitarian workers themselves can exhibit discriminatory and harmful attitudes towards male and LGBTIQ+ victims and that there needs to be more training and awareness raising within the sector.

“We will work towards developing more inclusive services and programmes to ensure protection against sexual and gender-based violence and access to appropriate care for all victims and survivors without discrimination,” said ICRC’s sexual violence operations manager, Maria Holmblad.