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Hope in the Shadows: Male Victims of Sexual Assault in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Miya Cain wrote "Hope in the Shadows: Male Victims of Sexual Assault in the Democratic Republic of the Congo" as an MPP student at the Harvard Kennedy School building upon research she conducted through the Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. She is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow (Diplomacy and Diversity 2014). 


As a result of ongoing conflict, poverty and instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congolese men and women have been subjected to various forms of sexual violence by warring rebel militia, government forces, and noncombatants. The mix of formal and informal actors- various countries, militia, rebels, the UN, humanitarian workers, NGOs, civilians- makes it difficult to design coordinated policy responses to the crisis. Most humanitarian aid, money, and international attention supports female victims of sexual violence, but male victims are largely left in the shadows. Simplified narratives of gender violence often define men as “villains” and women as “victims.” This narrative aligns with traditional conceptions of gender roles; however, the oversimplification often leaves male victims overlooked by policy responses designed to address sexual violence.

Policy Problem

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has faced decades of violence and conflict, from the brutal colonial rule of Belgian King Leopold II in the late nineteenth century to a 32 year long military dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. (1,2)  In May 1997, Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu’s dictatorship with the help of neighboring countries Rwanda, Uganda, Angola and Burundi. (3) The next year, Congolese rebel groups, supported by Rwanda and Uganda turned against Mobutu, and the DRC was plunged into a war known as “Africa’s First World War”. (4) This war, the deadliest since World War II, involved over seven African countries and various militias and rebel groups. (5) Over 5.4 million people were killed between 1998 and 2003. (6) Violence erupted once again after the first democratic elections in 2006, especially in the Eastern regions of the country, and violence continues to trouble parts of the country, especially the eastern Kivu regions. (7) Due to the ongoing conflict, poverty, and political instability in the DRC, there were about 2.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) within the country and 430,000 Congolese refugees living in neighboring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi as of January 2015. (8) Over half of those refugees, about 228,000, live in Uganda. (9)

The DRC ranks 186 out of 187 countries on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index, making it one of the lowest countries in the world along various health, education, and income indicators. (10) Against this backdrop of poverty and instability, the problem of sexual violence in the DRC has captured the attention of the United Nations, the international media, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Since New York Times columnist Nick Kristof called Congo the “rape capital of the world” in 2008, and former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited in 2009 during a trip focused on victims of sexual violence, international aid and attention has centered on the issue of sexual violence in the Congo. (11) Advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch began to label the DRC as “the worst place in the world to be a woman”. (12) Testimonies of mass rapes by army soldiers, forced sexual slavery and gang rapes by armed groups raised awareness about the traumatic experiences of women and girls. (13) Other reports detail sexual violence perpetrated by relatives and neighbors.  (14) At times, the discourse on sexual violence in the country has reduced the complex economic and political challenges to an “overly simplistic rape narrative,” resulting in further complications: (15)

“Tens of thousands of Congolese people are sexually assaulted every year; some of the rapes include horrific forms of torture…Advocacy efforts thus helped provide crucial assistance to the victims. However, this international focus also led to unintentionally counterproductive results on the ground, namely reluctance to deploy female peacekeepers, discrimination against other vulnerable populations, and at times, an increase in the use of sexual abuse by combatants”. (16)

Yet, despite all of the attention and support for women and girls who are survivors of sexual assault, there is little attention or support for men and boys who have faced sexual violence as a result of the conflict. (17) Due to the high perceived risks associated with speaking out about sexual violence, underreporting is high and there is a lack of comprehensive data about male victims of sexual violence in the DRC, which is reflective of trends around the world. As such, it is difficult to provide exact numbers as to the extent of the problem. Johnson et. al studied 998 households in Eastern DRC and found that 23.6% of men and 39.7% of women reported having experienced sexual violence. (18) Another survey by Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with the Refugee Law Project in Uganda surveyed 447 male refugees (99% from Congo), and 38.5% had experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. (19)

These academic articles along with stories from the news media are gradually bringing the issue to light. One journalist for The Guardian, Will Storr, highlights sexual violence against men as “the darkest secret of war”. (20) He profiles the story of a man who was raped three times a day, every day, for three years after capture by rebel forces during an attempted escape from the civil war in DRC. (21) Another man was gang raped by eleven rebel soldiers, others were penetrated with sticks or faced harm to their genitals. (22)

It is imperative to address sexual violence in the DRC, and globally, in a sex and gender inclusive way that supports both male and female victims. Sexual violence against men inflicts great psychological trauma for the victims, and physical trauma as well, including rectal bleeding, and damage to the genitals, (23) which can impact quality of life, ability to work, and ability to reproduce. Moreover, sexual violence against men has a detrimental impact on families and communities. In DRC, male survivors who tell their story seeking health or legal support face potentially being left by their wives and ostracized by the community for no longer being “a man” or being labeled as homosexual, which is culturally taboo in DRC or even illegal in neighboring countries like Uganda. (24)   

Literature Review

A review of the literature on sexual violence against men in conflict reveals many gaps in the discourse. Despite some acknowledgement that male survivors are marginalized, there is little formal public health or social science research, minimal data, and sparse media coverage. In this section, I will explore the existing social science, legal, and public health literature around: (I) various forms of sexual violence against men and boys in conflict; (II) theories for causes of such violence; (III) challenges to collecting data; (IV) and challenges to effective medical, legal, and institutional responses. Finally, in section (V) I discuss the ways in which the current mainstream framing of sexual violence as a “women’s issue” perpetuates a static gender paradigm and potentially exacerbates the problem of sexual violence against all victims.

Forms of Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys

Several key articles about violence against men and boys spend considerable time defining the forms that such violence can take in order to raise awareness of the complexity and gravity of the issue. Lara Stemple focuses on rape of men specifically and provides examples of three contexts where it frequently occurs–prison rape, rape during armed conflict, and childhood sexual abuse–in order to advocate for a more gender-inclusive approach to rape. (25)

Sandesh Sivakumaran expands the discussion beyond rape to include various forms of sexual violence against men during armed conflict. He outlines a “typology of abuses” and draws from case studies worldwide including Sri Lanka, former Yugoslavia, and Kosovo. (26) Sarah Solangon and Preeti Patel concur that sexual violence against men in armed conflict settings can take many forms of attacks “directed at the victim’s sexual or reproductive health or identity, for example: rape, whether oral or anal, involving objects, the perpetrator or two victims; enforced sterilization; enforced nudity; enforced masturbation and other forms of sexual humiliation; castration; genital violence (for example beatings of genitals or the administration of electric shocks to the genital area); and enforced incest or enforced rape of female or male others”. (27)

Indeed, sexual violence against men in the DRC has taken many of these forms. There are stories of rape with screwdrivers and sticks, daily repetitive rapes and gang rapes. (28) Some men were made to hold their genitals over a fire or drag rocks tied to their penis, others were forced to penetrate “holes in banana trees that run with acidic sap,” or give oral sex to lines of soldiers. (29)

Causes of Sexual Violence Against Men in Conflict

The current literature also provides various theories for the causes of sexual violence against men in conflict, building on the existing body of literature addressing sexual violence against women. Sivakumaran asserts that sexual violence against men is about power and dominance in the same way that it has been shown to be about power and dominance in the case of women. (30) Because law has broken down, there is room to reshape power balances. That is, it is unclear which group is “dominant” and sexual violence can be a way to assert power over another group: 

“Sexual violence against female members of a community is intended to suggest that the men of the community have failed in their duty to protect “their” women…the communication and the impotence are arguably more pronounced when it is the men themselves who are the victims of sexual violence. The construction of masculinity is that of the ability to exert power over others, particularly by means of the use of force.” (31)

Moreover, if sexual assaults are made public, vulnerability, humiliation and fear spread throughout the community. The “manliness of the man is lost and the family and the community are made to feel vulnerable”. (32)

Existing literature also addresses the issue of impunity for the perpetrators in DRC: “After the outbreak of the war, … traditional systems have disintegrated and been replaced by total impunity at all levels, surely also contributing to the normalization of sexual violence in the communities. As documented in recent reports, an increasing amount of sexual violence is now committed by civilians.” (33) With minimal consequences for sexual crimes, violence is normalized and perpetrators face low cost for their actions, resulting in potential increases in crime by both armed combatants and civilians. 

Finally, Dara Kay Cohen argues that wartime rape may be a means of combatant socialization. (34) That is, for military groups that use forced recruitment, rape could be a way of creating and strengthening group cohesion within the armed group. Some of the documented sexual violence in the DRC may support this theory, as with the rebel group M23, which forcibly recruited men and boys. Human Rights Watch documented over 60 cases of rape and gang rape perpetrated by M23 in just four months. (35) An area of future study could focus on the recruitment mechanisms of various rebel groups in the DRC and their correlation with various types of sexual violence committed.  

Challenges to Data Collection

The concepts of masculinity, power and dominance that underlie the potential causes of sexual violence overlap with the many reasons why male victims of sexual violence during conflict do not report their experiences to authorities or healthcare professionals. The lack of reporting contributes to a gap in data and statistics that may underestimate the problem, complicating the formation of comprehensive policy solutions and advocacy. As described above, male victims, like many female victims, experience shame, guilt, humiliation, fear and stigma after they’ve been sexually violated. (36) Yet, the stigma for men can be different, and perhaps worse. Men are often feminized or homosexualized and exiled from their communities. (37) For instance, in Congo when men reported being raped, they “instantly became castaways in their villages, lonely, ridiculed figures, derisively referred to as bush wives.” (38) In some instances, reporting the truth about what happens could result in a man losing his wife, family, and community, compounding the trauma of sexual violence with isolation and rejection.

To complicate matters, if a man is raped or sexually violated by another man, it brings up complex issues around sexuality. Many male victims describe feeling destruction of their gender identity and confusion about sexual orientation, along with depression, suicide ideation, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (39) In Congo, homosexuality is taboo, which makes men even more reluctant to report their traumatic experience. People in the community sneer: “You’re no longer a man.” (41) Furthermore, in Uganda, where many Congolese refugees flee, homosexuality is illegal with a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Thus, a man could come forward to report a crime seeking support and end up arrested by the police. (42)

Some forms of sexual violence against men do not leave physical signs, which would further discourage victims from speaking out because they may find it difficult to prove a lack of consent.  Other forms of sexual violence, like beatings of male testicles, leave permanent damage to reproductive organs that could be too painful or shameful to address. (43)

Lack of Appropriate Medical, Legal and Institutional Responses

The literature suggests that there is a lack of appropriate medical, legal, and institutional responses to the problem of male sexual violence. Healthcare professionals lack awareness that men might be sexually abused and are often not trained to seek the physical symptoms and ask the questions that would help diagnose a male victim correctly in order to provide proper treatment. (44) Other healthcare professionals only focus on anal rape as a form of sexual violence, and classify acts such as genital mutilation as torture rather than sexual violence, which means that those instances would not be included in reports or data about sexual violence. (45)

Moreover, there are few international organizations or NGOs focused on sexual violence against men: “Advocacy campaigns at the international, political, and legal levels [are] non-existent.” (46) For instance, in 2002, Del Zotto and Jones sampled 60 NGO reports addressing sexual violence during conflict; only 2 focused on men and boys. (47) Additionally, they found that of the 4,076 NGOs focused on sexual violence, only 3% mentioned male victims in their programs. (48)

Furthermore, many legal systems exclude male victims from definitions of sexual violence in domestic laws. (49) A recent survey of 189 countries around the world found that: “90% of men in conflict-affected countries are in situations where the law provides no protection for them if they become victims of sexual violence; 62 countries, representing almost two-thirds of the world’s population, only recognize female victims of rape; 67 [countries] criminalize men who report abuse; [and] in 28 countries only males are recognized as perpetrators of sexual violence – not females.” (50) In the DRC, even though some laws are relatively progressive, rule of law is “either severely compromised or non-existent” in the areas of the country most affected by conflict. (51) Given the ongoing conflict disconnecting the eastern Kivu region from the rest of the country, implementing or enforcing national laws would be difficult.

Challenging the Gender Paradigm

R. Charli Carpenter highlights that gender-based violence in theory is “violence that is targeted at women or men because of their sex and/or their socially constructed gender roles”, which includes, but is not limited to, sexual violence. (52) However, many international efforts to address gender-based violence have become synonymous with efforts to fight sexual violence against women. R Charli Carpenter expands the conversation by detailing various forms of gender-based violence facing men and boys in conflict situations including sex-selective massacre, forced recruitment, and sexual violence. (53) Carpenter recommends that gender be re-defined “inclusively so as not to remain synonymous only with women.” (54) 

The “discourse on ‘security’ in international organizations is highly gendered” mostly focusing on protection of “women and children” or “women and girls” to the exclusion of male victims. (55) Scholars posit several reasons for the focus on women in academic and policy discourses. For instance, the idea of protecting women from men creates “a clear ‘enemy’ (man) and clear ‘victim’ (woman).” (56) This dichotomy activates passionate feelings about right and wrong and may make it easier to mobilize for advocacy, support, and donations. (57) If it is in fact easier to garner sympathy and raise money for women and girls than for men and boys, this presents challenges for making recommendations geared towards international aid actors, who must balance competing priorities. R. Charli Carpenter suggests several pathways towards a more nuanced approach to framing, including mentioning men as members of the innocent civilian population along with women and children, describing women’s experiences in conflict as distinct from men’s without creating a hierarchy of whose experience is “worse,” and including men as victims of sexual violence alongside women. (58)

Policies and Recommendations

In this section, I provide several policy recommendations to address the challenges outlined above.

First, legal frameworks, international declarations, and reports centered on sexual violence should be reframed to be more gender inclusive. As of 2009, there were over one hundred uses of the term violence against women in U.N. resolutions, treaties and documents, yet no human rights instruments addressed sexual violence against men. (59) In June 2013, the UN Security Council first recognized men and boys as victims of sexual violence in conflict in UNSCR 2106. (60) This was a positive step towards a more gender-inclusive treatment of sexual violence in conflict. UN agencies should continue to move away from limiting focus on women and girls and recognize men and boys as victims of sexual violence in conflict.

Second, public health and social science researchers should create inclusive data collection instruments that allow for more in-depth evaluation and analysis of the problem, raise awareness, and inform policy. For instance, surveys should ask about both the sex of the perpetrator and the victim, instead of assuming that victims are female and perpetrators are male. (61) The Refugee Law Project in Uganda is a pioneering organization in the field working with mostly Congolese refugees, treating male victims, providing spaces to speak out and share their stories, and partnering with Johns Hopkins University to systematically collect data about sexual violence against men. They also convene stakeholders regionally to raise awareness in neighboring countries, due to the fluidity of refugee populations and concerns about sexual violence across the region. (62)

Finally, trainings for healthcare professionals, social workers, and humanitarian responders should be adapted such that they include information about the various forms of sexual violence faced by men, appropriate questions to ask when collecting data for rapid assessments, and proper resources to build competency for accurate diagnosis, treatment and support for men. It is especially important for clinicians to understand male rape indicators and ask about potential sexual violence in a nonjudgmental way. (63) Also, researchers should consider the potential for technology to assist with survey anonymity, perhaps using electronic tablets where respondents could input information in a way that feels safer and more private. Of course, this would have to be adapted for cultural appropriateness and sensitivity, but there are evolving opportunities for creative and sensitive ways to collect information from and get support to survivors. (64)

Some practitioners are concerned that because the available finances for addressing sexual violence are limited, the advocacy world is a zero-sum game. That is, if male victims of sexual violence are considered in discussion and programming, it would detract from the support for women. (65) Nevertheless, there are strong counterarguments to this concern. Continuing the paradigm in which the male is a perpetrator and the female is a victim only re-entrenches the constructs of femininity and masculinity that may be a part of the reason for sexual violence in the first place. (66) On the other hand, inclusively supporting all victims of sexual violence in conflict regardless of gender would not only help to provide male victims and their communities with appropriate healing, but also could help to dismantle the entrenched views of men as perpetrators and women as victims that perpetuate problematic power dynamics based on gender.

 •     •     • 

About the Author

Miya Cain is currently a Teaching Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she works with Professor Marshall Ganz to teach leadership, organizing, and public narrative. She is also a research consultant at UUSC, a human rights non-profit, where she focuses on the mental health impacts of immigration detention for women and children and improving conditions for workers in the food industry. Previously, she worked in Washington, D.C. as a political appointee for the Obama Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services and as a White House Associate in the Office of the Vice President. Miya also worked as a Supply Chain Analyst for Partners in Health in rural Rwanda, where she helped improve the management and distribution of essential medicines and medical supplies. In addition, she worked to improve care for premature babies and streamline services at an HIV clinic for youth. Miya received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology-Behavioral Neuroscience from Yale University and her Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. She was born and raised in Miami, Florida.


Cain, Miya. "Hope in the Shadows: Male Victims of Sexual Assault in the Democratic Republic of the Congo." Article, "Knowledge & Action," Humanity in Action, 2015. Humanity in Action, Inc. 



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