Sexualized Violence Against Men and Boys in the Context of the Syria Crisis: Do we Know Enough?

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Justin Hett is the clinical advisor for mental health at CVT Jordan.

In a time of war what does it mean to be a man, a husband, a father? These are just some of the many questions raised at a recent conference I attended in Berlin called, “Understanding Sexualized Violence against Men and Boys in the Context of the Syria Crisis.”

The conference was organized by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, who expressed a strong desire to learn more about this important but often unrecognized issue, both for the purposes of development and peacebuilding.

It was one of the first such dialogues of its kind specifically focused on violence against men and boys. Throughout the conference it was stressed that this in no way diminishes the importance of focusing efforts on women and girls who are similarly and systematically victimized; however there are particular challenges to working with men and boys which require a good understanding both of the scale of the problem, and the impact that this type of violence has on a person’s sense of masculinity and identity within the family and community. 

Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War

Sexual violence happens on a large scale in most major conflict situations as a way of asserting dominance and control over communities. Just because it is not talked about does not mean it is not happening. 

The impact of being a victim of such violence can be deeply traumatic and have lifelong implications on relationships, sense of identity, as well as physical and psychological health. Seeking help for such a stigmatized issue can be difficult, too difficult for some.

The reason why sexual violence is so deeply emasculating in many contexts in which CVT works, is because of the patriarchal nature of many societies in which our clients live. So we must consider what it means, in these contexts, to be a man. Furthermore, we must consider these broader level societal structures in our service provision, and engage with communities in ways that aim towards a more holistic view of masculinity and empowerment for all members, genders and ages.

Shared Learning

The conference brought together practitioners from organizations working in the Middle East, like CVT, academics who have done significant research into this area and those who have studied or addressed this issue in other parts of the world.

Through my own experience of working with men in therapy over many years, and most recently in supervising trauma healing work at CVT, I have developed an interest in better understanding the factors which enable men to access and benefit from therapy. It was a privilege to be able to present something of CVT Jordan’s work in this field as part of a panel, but it was also a valuable opportunity to learn from others so that we can continue to improve and develop our services.

Two presentations stood out to me:

Sara Chynoweth, who was commissioned by the UNHCR to undertake a study on this subject, spoke about what she had learned through speaking both with survivors and service providers. She highlighted some of the myths that surround this subject such as the idea that sexual violence only happens in detention. The reality is quite different, and even in countries of refuge exploitation and abuse can be widespread.

Charu Hogg spoke about the large numbers of interviews conducted by the All Survivors Project, including survivors from within Syria. I really wanted to understand the extent of the issue for survivors of the Syrian conflict and also hear the survivors’ perspective, especially regarding the types of barriers there are to accessing care. It made realize me how scarce services are, especially for adult male survivors in comparison to the high percentage of men who have experienced this type of violence at some point during the conflict.

Through the panel discussions I was also able to learn more about the work of partner organizations and build connections that can hopefully lead to greater collaboration and idea sharing in the future.

Takeaways

For me the conference underscored the importance of having a balanced gender perspective represented first and foremost in CVT’s clinical work, but also in the language that we use in proposal writing and reports.

It compelled me to think carefully about how we create a safe space for men and boys in our center. This does not only include our approach in the therapy room, but simple things such as how we welcome and receive people at reception, what type of information we provide for them about our services and how this is presented. Small details can make such a difference in how people respond to receiving care.

I also thought more about how CVT can reduce the stigma associated with sexualized violence through the way we provide care in a survivor-centric way. For men and boys, a key factor is how we help them talk about physical symptoms and receive the necessary medical care by providers who are sensitive and responsive to their needs. Often this simply does not exist. It is therefore crucial that we work with medical professionals and provide education about the effects of sexual violence.

Personally, I have found being involved with some of CVT’s services to male survivors particularly impactful. It’s amazing to see the extent to which men can reconnect with hope through participating in therapy in a safe and collaborative space. As they begin to feel more empowered as men, husbands and fathers, there is a ripple effect through their families and community.

Do we know enough? No. Should we do all we can to learn more about this far reaching issue for the sake of all Syrian survivors? Absolutely.

Funding for CVT’s work in Jordan is provided by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

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