Speaking on the subject of gender-based violence last spring, then executive director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, aptly stated, “We have broken the silence, and we realize, at the last, that a violation of one person’s human rights, of women’s rights, is a violation for all.” Today, the 65th annual celebration of Human Rights Day, we must reflect on the need to treat sexual violence as a pressing human rights concern. Though often categorized as a niche issue, advocates, including the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights, have long called attention to the wider effects of sexual violence on not only individuals, but also whole communities. As Bachelet asserts, sexual violence is a humanity question; therefore, the burden of responsibility lies on all of us.
In the broader discussion around gender-based violence, the word gender has generally denoted women, rather than encompassing the word’s full scope. Rape, in its countless contexts, is considered a women’s issue instead of a human issue despite its vast impacts on men and women alike. Data shows that rape is used rampantly as a weapon of war against men as well – a fact often forgotten or underreported. In 2010, 22 percent of men in eastern Congo reported experiencing conflict-related sexual violence, as compared to 30 percent of women. In the study of a concentration camp in Sarajevo in 2004, 80 percent of male prisoners reported having been raped. Even when men are not the direct targets, the use of sexual violence against women as a weapon of war affects not only individual victims, but the entire community and the familial bonds essential to a society’s cohesion. However, the literature and discourse around male experiences of sexual violence is limited, often reduced to a passing reference.
Male survivors are not just overlooked in armed conflict; looking at sexual violence in the U.S. military, an estimated 53 percent of sexual assault cases in 2012 involved male victims. Within the transgender community, estimates of sexual victimization in the United States range from 40 to 66 percent. Activists addressing rape and assault in the military, on college campuses, and beyond have highlighted the need for a more inclusive discourse on sexual violence. At Tufts University, where I’m currently studying, rising student activist John Kelly is calling for understanding and recognition of experiences within the LGBTQ community, including male survivors. The conversation is continually expanding to the benefit of all survivors, reframing the issue outside its traditional – and perhaps inaccurate – niche.
Addressing the experiences of male survivors, however, is only one piece of this work: as we acknowledge men as victims, we must also call on them to be advocates. UN Women’s He For She campaign, which launched this fall, calls for a movement that “brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.” As we emphasize sexual violence as a human rights issue, we must call on men to take a stand not only for themselves, but also for their female counterparts.
As highlighted by Secretary of State John Kerry in his remarks at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London this summer, sexual violence “ought to be personal for every man, woman and child on earth, because it degrades and defiles the very idea of civilization.” He further stated, “[a]cts of sexual violence demean our collective humanity.” As we grapple with the fact that sexual violence in conflict zones affects men, women, and children alike, we must remember that this violence is a reflection of broader structural gendered violence present outside of war.
Regardless of a victim’s gender, sexual violence is a crime against an individual’s humanity. The responsibility falls on all of us to combat that violence for as long as it pervades our societies and institutions. On this Human Rights Day, as we conclude the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, the notion of these issues as human issues is critical to a meaningful, comprehensive understanding of the battle we face – and the way we must face it: together.