Male Victims of Sexual Violence Struggle for Voice

A recent spate of cases of alleged sexual abuse of boys, several involving directors of child welfare NGOs, has drawn renewed attention to the prevalence of such crimes in Cambodia. Yet the male victims of such abuse remain shut out from support services due a perception that only women and girls can be victims of sexual violence, experts said this week.

The problems facing boys and men who suffer sexual violence was the focus of an international five-day conference in Phnom Penh this week, where 300 attendees from 70 countries gathered to present research and highlight the pressing need for a change in how male victims are viewed by society. 

According to conference co-organizers the South-South Institute, the most recent research estimates that globally 1 in 6 men—compared to 1 in 5 women—have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives, many on more than one occasion. However, funds to support abused men are hard to come by and only a small percentage of NGOs provide support to male victims.

Challenging this situation and the injustices it perpetuates was the goal behind the conference, co-organized by local child-welfare group First Step Cambodia and other NGOs.

“As a human being, you have a right to some kind of response as a victim of sexual violence, irrespective of whether you are a boy or a girl, or a man or a woman,” said Christopher Dolan, whose NGO Refugee Law Project in Uganda works with male victims of sexual violence in conflict.

“From a political perspective, it will break cycles of violence. And from a psychological perspective, it will help us understand how trauma impacts people not just one gender of people,” Mr. Dolan said.

The problems facing boys and men in Cambodia were highlighted by Youth for Peace program manager Nou Va, who has worked with victims of abuse at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

“As a Cambodian, I had never heard of sexual violence against men…and the history of belief in Cambodia meant that whenever people heard about it, they didn’t believe it because we didn’t believe it could happen,” he said.

A national survey carried out in 2013 by the Cambodian government and Unicef showed the scale of the sexual violence problem here for the first time—with girls and boys equally at risk. The study found 4.4 percent of females and 5.6 percent of males aged 18 to 24 experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to age 18, rising to 6 percent of females and 5 percent of males among respondents aged from 13 to 17.

Action pour les enfants (APLE) president Samleang Seila said that his NGO, which investigates child sex crimes committed in Cambodia, has found that boys are abused in similar numbers to girls.

“Since APLE began investigating until now, nearly 650 children have been rescued from sexual abuse and exploitation in APLE initiated cases. Boys represented 53 percent, aged 7 to 17 years old, compared to 47 percent girls, aged 4 to 16,” Mr. Seila said.

“But while it is evenly spread, it is more challenging to deal with support for boy victims,” he added.

The reasons for such difficulties include inadequate services and facilities for male victims, a lack of specialists and a tendency by police and court officials to believe that males are less affected by sexual abuse.

The plight facing boy victims in Cambodia is underlined by the cases involving abuse carried out at child-welfare organizations, but reflects Cambodian society more generally, said Alastair Hilton, a former social worker from the U.K. who helped found First Step Cambodia.

In March, a Cambodian orphanage owner was charged with sexually abusing numerous boys in his care. Last year, an American man was convicted of sexually abusing five boys at the orphanage he was running.

“Institutional abuse is a potential epidemic, and for every one organization here who will work with us if abuse is suspected, there are another 10 that will shut the doors. So our priority must be to refocus efforts on the many victims of that abuse, half of whom are boys,” he said.

But it is easier said than done.

A 2015 study by researchers from the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health looking at trauma suffered by orphans and vulnerable children in five developing countries, including Cambodia, found that sexual violence was by far the biggest cause, regardless of gender, affecting 12 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys in institutions.

“Yet, international funding mechanisms often place a special emphasis on the protection of girls while neglecting to discuss the special needs of boys for protection from physical and sexual abuse,” the authors said.

In 2008, Mr. Hilton penned the first ever analysis of boys as victims of sexual violence in Cambodia, titled “I Thought it Could Never Happen to Boys.”

Though abuse against boys was clearly happening, no research had been done to measure the scale. Mr. Hilton suspected that cultural attitudes regarding masculinity were keeping a lid on an endemic problem, which his findings confirmed.

“There was a culture of silence where male victims were afraid to speak out because everything in their communities and society seemed to be telling them their sexuality wasn’t important and where only girls could be abused,” he said.

Mr. Hilton helped set up First Step Cambodia in 2010 partly as a result of his findings, but he said changes in attitudes have been painfully slow.

Despite the proliferation of NGOs serving women and girl victims of sexual abuse, there are still only three organizations responding specifically to the needs of boys and men—First Step, Hagar and M’lop Tbang in Sihanoukville, while Friends International works with both girls and boys.

“When the research came out in 2008, there was none. I was under the naive impression that once the research was out, donors would have looked at the findings and thought: ‘Oh, we see now there’s a problem so let’s do something about it.’ But I have learned that it doesn’t work like that,” Mr. Hilton said.

“The key thing is that gender is not just about girls and women. Aspects of gender complicate risk factors and we must reveal the complex patterns of risk that exist around gender,” Mr. Hilton said.

“For example, the issue of virginity here is one given a lot of focus, both culturally and by media and some NGOs working with females. But that focus reinforces the gender roles that create problems, while boys are seen as freer and, as a consequence, understand their sexuality as being not as important.”

Gender roles run deep in Cambodia and without proper training, those working with male victims struggle, said Oudam Sambath Phal, a 35-year-old lecturer in social work at the Royal University of Phnom Penh who spent three years working with First Step.

“Before First Step, I had only experienced women victims, or gender-based violence. But in 2008, Alastair conducted his research and the results were clear—Cambodian boys were also victims of sexual abuse, and not just from foreigners,” Mr. Sambath Phal said.

“It is extremely difficult in our culture for a boy to express what has happened because he is expected to be strong, powerful—if anything, he is expected to be an abuser,” he added.

“I teach my students to not focus on gender but on the fact that they are a victim. To do this it is necessary to look at male development—to show that it is okay for a boy to cry.”

Mr. Dolan of the Refugee Law Project in Uganda said that change is coming, one voice at a time.

“When we started 15 years ago, people said it was a losing battle, men were not going to come forward. But the fact is, it makes sense to disclose, if the support is there. And if it is there, people do, we see, come forward, which allows other people to come forward,” he said.

“I think the funding will come and that in 10 years, the landscape will be very different. We are waking up but the momentum needs to build and there is definitely resistance—in academia, for instance.”

Research from various fields is also beginning to break out the complexities of sexual violence for both men and women and showing new definitions are needed.

Two studies led by researcher Jarrett Davies—“I want to be Brave” in 2014, looking at the sexual exploitation of street children in Sihanoukville, and 2012’s “The Lingua Boys of Siem Reap” examining issues faced by male sex workers, sought to get beyond simple gender surveys to learn specific issues facing marginalized groups, which includes all the LGBT communities.

And new research on the Khmer Rouge has questioned definitions of sexual violence and shown men too were victims of forced marriage.

“Before, people used to think anal rape was the only way men could be sexually abused. But genital mutilations, forced marriage, being forced to have sex, are all forms of sexual violence that were hidden away under torture, or believed to be only suffered by women,” Mr. Dolan said.

One feminist researcher and gender expert, Theresa de Langis, whose research in sexual violence during conflict includes recent studies into crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. She said it is important that awareness extends to male victims because all victims of sexual violence are ultimately victims of the abuse of power.

“What we are seeing is that there are all these forms of sexual violence against men that we didn’t know about, and it’s very complicated, so we need to ask why?” she said.

Despite the differences that exist between how men and women are impacted by sexual violence, Ms. de Langis said one thing cannot be ignored.

“The commonality of men and women who experience violence is that both overwhelmingly will be perpetrated by men—this is why re-evaluating masculinity and changing it is so important,” she said.

But as the conference came to a close Friday, Mr. Hilton said one of the biggest obstacles facing men and boys is just this idea—of men being the perpetrators and of abused boys and men becoming future perpetrators.

“An additional layer of trauma that men experience is the presumption of future guilt, that they will become future abusers themselves, which means that victims are then re-victimized,” he said.

“There are many victims that become advocates for social justice—a lot of the people at this conference are victims of abuse—and they are all motivated by a will to give support to other victims and show they aren’t alone.”

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