The Silent Victims
Information and debates about sexual violence are seldom focused on men. In fact, the topic is so poorly documented and discussed that it almost has led to the assumption that it does not constitute a problem. In South Africa most studies of sexual violence against men focus on their situation in prison where significant abuse is documented – however few studies have uncovered the situation of South African men in general. From studies of sexual violence against women we know that underreporting is likely to be substantial. Some figures indicate that around 3.5% of men in South Africa have been raped but there are all reasons to believe that the real figures are higher.
Worldwide, focus on victims of sexual violence is on women, not men. Social customs and emotional aversion has by large made sexual violence against men taboo. It does not form part of the political agenda, nor is it recognized a significant problem nationally or internationally. Sexual violence against men is often perceived disempowering, challenging masculinity and men’s role in society. In South Africa this must also be seen against the background of the changing role of men during the past decades. Many national and international studies claim that the patriarchal nature of apartheid generated physical violence as a mean to resolve conflict and achieve self-gain. Whether or not this explains sexual violence against men committed by men is unclear – however what is clear is that men like women are exposed to sexual abuse.
Men are in many ways the silent victims, but they do not suffer less or experience less shame than women. What is common to men and women is that most perpetrators are men. The lack of attention and reporting on sexual violence against men is worrying as it prevents men from being outspoken. Existing international human rights framework fail to fully act upon the fact that sexual violence is not gender specific (i.e. limited to female victims) and focus on male victims somehow seem to escape attention.
If the United Nations and other humanitarian actors fail to emphasize this very fact, then how can we expect that countries having gone through a violent transition like South Africa pay attention to this problem? In the end, men are forgotten and remain silent.
The term ‘gender-based violence’ describes actions reinforcing inequalities between men and women –i.e. women being discriminated and abused by men. As such, this is based on social norms rather than the de facto situation. Silence is violence and men need equal access to and treatment of mental and physical injuries caused by sexual violence against them. On 8 February, citizens of South Africa were protesting against sexual violence in the country. The protests were also demonstrated by radio stations across the country, beeping every four minute to demonstrate the frequency of rape incidents in the country. There were probably many men participating but few that openly protested towards rape against men. The reason is simple – nobody knows.