Male survivors of sexual violence – Their voices and experience must be at the centre of humanitarian interventions


How can humanitarian actors and practitioners better support male survivors of sexual violence? How can they regain strength and trust in the future? And how to ensure the voices, opinions and knowledge of survivor leaders and networks are heard and put at the centre of responses? These are some of the questions at the heart of the powerful discussion held in early July with the alumni of our Course on Addressing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Emergency Settings. During the meeting, survivor leaders, fellow alumni and course experts shared their experiences and provided guidance on a complex and still a too often under-addressed issue. 

The discussion started with Brian Lwanga, who shared his experience as a Sexual Gender-Based Violence and Persecution Assistant with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in Uganda. Brian described RLP’s use of screening for timely identification of male victims/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence among refugee populations. He explained how a proactive approach to enabling disclosures for male survivors in safe spaces and a careful and empathic approach can be effective in the early identification of sexual violence harms and in the facilitation of referrals.

Jean Jacques Lende, human rights defender and representative of the Men of Hope network, highlighted the importance of competent, timely and proactive services available to all male survivors. In a profound testimony, Jean Jacques shared his powerful journey from survival to activism. He spoke about the fear, sense of guilt, lack of self-esteem and other mental health impacts male survivors may develop. He then highlighted how accessing support, such as the one provided by RLP, can be life-changing and help survivors gradually recover their physical and mental health, regain trust in the future, and lead them and their families to thrive. 

Didier Butara Byamungu, Project Medical Referent at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), shared his experience in providing support to Ethiopian men and boys migrants who are survivors of ill-treatment and are deported from another country to specifically-designed Therapeutic Counselling Centres (TCC) in Ethiopia. Didier illustrated the barriers that initially impeded male survivors from accessing MSF facilities, such as the lack of male providers, the lack of specific pathways for male patients, and the exclusive focus in the project on the needs of women and girl survivors. He explained that to overcome these barriers, MSF took some key steps, including the recruitment of gender-diverse staff, the creation of discussion groups in the Centres for both women and men to provide group support and, crucially, the involvement of victims of sexual violence previously treated in the facility, as focal points at the TCC and in their region of origin.

Human rights defender Steven Kighoma, another representative of the Men of Hope network, highlighted how harmful attitudes by health personnel could prove profoundly damaging and discourage male survivors from seeking support, negatively impacting their health and survival. Condemning the immense existing gaps in quality and long-term medical and holistic responses for individuals and families who bears the impacts of sexual violence, including in economically developed contexts, Steven urged the alumni audience and the humanitarian community at large not to wait any longer before making efforts to dramatically improve efforts and interventions for survivors and communities in conflict and displacement settings.

Human rights professional and investigator Layla Clément concluded this series of interventions by sharing her learning on interviewing male sexual violence survivors for accountability purposes in Ukraine (2016-2019) and China (in the context of the Uyghur population). Layla highlighted some harmful and re-victimising attitudes and responses, such as disbelief and lack of acknowledgement of the violence, that some judges show when confronted with cases of sexual violence against men.  She also explained how crucial rapport-building between the interviewer and the interviewee/witness survivor in the context of each interview is, how human rights professionals and investigators must take into account the possible physical and psychological consequences survivors bear following incidents of sexual violence, and the importance of foreseeing adequate psychosocial support.

Commenting on Layla’s presentation, Course Steering Committee member Professor Chris Dolan interrogated the current model of investigation and justice processes. According to Prof. Dolan, these processes must radically shift towards a survivor-centred perspective. Several judges remain ill-equipped to adequately deal with cases of male survivors of sexual violence in courtrooms, thus heightening the risk of re-traumatisation of the person. 

The meeting gathered important testimonies and learnings on improving responses to sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings. All speakers highlighted the importance of creating safer spaces to enable safe disclosures for all survivors, including men. They also stressed the urgency of offering timely and competent responses to address survivors’ physical and mental health needs and to go beyond the needs of the individual to incorporate those of families and community members. The speakers also agreed on the need to involve responders of diverse genders and backgrounds and ensure they are fully equipped to handle cases with empathy and respect.

Finally, and most importantly, engaging with survivor leaders and networks is crucial for all humanitarian and human rights actors alike – their voices, lived experience, knowledge, and expertise must be centred in efforts in all sectors and long-term, meaningful engagement processes need to be actively sought by all responders. Once again, the “Nothing about us, without us” slogan, well-known to any humanitarian actor, rings true and should be used as the starting point for any intervention and reflection.

The Alumni network of the Course “Addressing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Emergency Settings” includes former participants, teachers and partners of the Course. The Network creates a space for reflection and ongoing peer learning, centring alumni’s expertise and collaboration, and aiming to improve responses for survivors and their communities.