Central African Republic and the hidden survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse

29 June 2015
Lucy Heaven Taylor

by Lucy Heaven Taylor

Lucy Heaven Taylor is an accountability and PSEA specialist with 17 years experience in the sector.

Sexual exploitation and abuse in emergency settings has hit the news once more, with reports that children have been sexually assaulted by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR). As the French Government launches a criminal enquiry, it is clear that many of the survivors of the alleged abuse are boys. Lucy Heaven Taylor asks whether we are doing enough in the humanitarian sector to identify and support male survivors of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA).

Women and girls dominate the statistics as survivors of sexual violence. As many parts of the world experience rapid social change, violence against women is rightly being pushed up the international agenda. Events such as the recent attacks against women in India have captured global attention, and show us what a long and difficult journey we still have ahead to highlight and tackle gender-based violence against women and girls.

In our own sector, NGOs have risen to the challenge of PSEA (protection from sexual exploitation and abuse by staff and associated personnel) over the last decade. Since the West Africa scandal of 2002, where a joint UN-Save the Children report found that displaced people in West Africa had been sexually abused and exploited by UN and NGO staff, the international community has made huge efforts to tackle the issue.

However, in acting to protect women and girls from sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, are we in danger of overlooking SEA involving men and boys?

Is there a problem?

One issue is the availability of reliable figures. International statistics on survivors of SEA in society as a whole indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence (WHO 2014).  Statistics on the number of male survivors are much harder to find. The WHO World Report on Violence and Health states that in the few studies undertaken in developing countries, the proportion of men reporting having been a victim of sexual assault ranges from 3.6% in Namibia and 13.4% in Tanzania, to 20% in Peru.

When it comes to SEA by humanitarian workers, it gets even harder to quantify. The UN, together with some CHS Alliance members such as Oxfam and Save the Children, produce public reports on incidents of SEA in their organisations. But this data is not gender disaggregated due to confidentiality concerns.

Stigma around SEA against men and boys in most parts of the world is a major barrier to reporting. Add to this the taboos against homosexuality – and the fact that homosexual acts are illegal in some countries – and you can see why it is hardly ever reported. It is hard enough for female survivors of SEA to come forward. Those working in PSEA know how difficult it is to create an environment where women and girls feel they can make a complaint about SEA. We know, too, that SEA cases are chronically under-reported. But could we be missing a disproportionate number of cases of SEA against men and boys?

Accusations of bias

It is possible that our own approach is part of the problem. A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian described some of the horrific sexual abuse suffered by men in conflict. One issue with providing support to these men, says the author, is the bias in NGO gender-based violence programming towards women and girls. The article claims that men and boys are barely mentioned in internal documents about SEA – a claim that’s hard to deny when reading many UN and NGO reports on this subject. The author also quotes a local organisation working with refugee survivors of sexual violence that was allegedly told by its international NGO donor that they would ‘only receive funding if 70% of its client base was female’.

Humanitarian catastrophes – increased vulnerability

The contexts we work in as humanitarians can lead to men and boys finding themselves in very vulnerable situations. Armed conflict is a prime example of this – male or female, you are equally powerless against someone with a gun. Even in societies where men are traditionally dominant, humanitarian catastrophes can dramatically increase vulnerability amongst men and boys. Sexual abuse is not about sexual preference; it is about asserting power over those more vulnerable than you. Being in receipt of humanitarian assistance offers prime conditions for exploitation and abuse to occur, and if you are powerless enough your gender does not always make you immune – as we saw to tragic effect in Central African Republic.

This is by no means intended to detract from the efforts on preventing sexual violence against women – the situations that create the vulnerability described above are proven to impact disproportionately on women.  Rather, it is to suggest that whilst focusing on the undoubted needs of women and girls, we do not close ourselves off to the possibility of SEA against men and boys.

Starting to tackle the issue

So what can we as the humanitarian community do to address this? Here are some suggestions:

  • In all policies, resources and training on SEA we should be sure to acknowledge that survivors – and perpetrators – of SEA can be male or female.
  • For organisations that do not already do so, we should also capture and report data on incidents of SEA in our organisations – and be sure it is disaggregated, so that we can track trends.
  • Consider how we can be open to complaints of SEA against men and boys.  As discussed, this is hard with any complaints on SEA. Some NGOs implement women-friendly approaches, working through women’s groups and groups working on gender-based violence to facilitate discussions with affected populations, to draw out any issues of SEA by humanitarian workers. Could we identify groups working on sexual violence against men, such as the one mentioned in the Guardian article, to see if they could help us encourage male survivors to come forward?
  • Remember that if we enable people to make a complaint, we must have systems in place to follow them up, especially for issues of such a sensitive nature. Making a complaint is a big step – we risk causing further harm to complainants if we do not follow up adequately. Support can be found here.

So what do you think? Is abuse of men and boys really a problem? Or is it distracting us from the greater imperative of addressing widespread injustice against women and girls? What is your organisation doing on these issues? Let us know.

*The terms ‘survivors’ is used to denote individuals who have experienced SEA.