Characterisation of Sexual Violence as a Women’s Issue in the Rohingya Crisis: A Response to David Eichert

Characterisation of Sexual Violence as a Women’s Issue in the Rohingya Crisis: A Response to David Eichert

[Eva Buzo is an Australian lawyer, and the Executive Director of Victim Advocates International. She lived in Cox’s Bazar between November 2017 and September 2019.]

David Eichert’s “Concerns about the non-inclusion of sexual violence against men and boys in the Gambia v Myanmar” raises important points in relation to the characterisation of sexual violence as being a primarily female experience in the clearance operations perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya. This article follows on from to Eichert’s piece to discuss why sexual violence in the Rohingya context has been articulated as a “female” experience. Early reporting on sexual violence focused exclusively on women and girls, leading to a widely held view that there were few, if any, male survivors of sexual violence. Consequently, no services or assistance were provided for them. The absence of adequate services for male survivors created no motivation for men to recognise and report their experiences, making access to male survivors for investigative teams difficult. It also provided limited opportunities for investigative teams and humanitarian actors to learn how to best engage Rohingya male survivors on this extremely sensitive issue.

A more recent analysis of documentation undertaken by the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (“ARSPH”) suggests potentially widespread patterns of sexual violence against men and boys. Recognising patterns of complaints from men and boys who reported their complaint as ‘arrested’ or ‘torture’, with appropriate cultural awareness, uncovered sometimes prolific patterns of sexual violence against them. If sexualised torture was a normalised feature of the torture methods used by the Tatmadaw and Border Guard Police (“BGP”), then it is conceivable that sexual violence in the Rohingya context was equally as prevalent amongst men and boys, as it was among women and girls. It appears from the ARPSH documentation, that this was the case.

These victims should not be left behind. Resources should also be dedicated to medical services for men and boys with chronic injuries sustained from sexual violence. The International Criminal Court Trust Fund for Victims (“TFV”) is one potential avenue through which resources could be channelled to help them receive urgently needed medical assistance, and address the ongoing problem of low reporting of sexual violence against men and boys in the Rohingya context.

The Female Experience of the Crisis

Early focus on sexual violence against women and girls perpetuated the exclusion of men and boys from the sexual violence narrative. The 2019 report ‘We Need to Write Our Own Names’: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the Rohingya Humanitarian Response in Cox’s Bazar from the Women’s Refugee Commission noted the early focus on female survivors and the need to provide specialised services,

Early assessments in the crisis highlighted the high levels of GBV experienced by Rohingya women and girls before and during the crisis. As such, the vast majority of targeted actions focus on women and girls, with systems being set up to ensure quality support for GBV survivors… (p10).

Similarly, reports released in late 2017 in the immediate aftermath of the crisis such as “All of My Body Was Pain: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma”” from Human Rights Watch and “My World is Finished: Rohingya Targeted in Crimes Against Humanity In Myanmar” by Amnesty International only discuss sexual violence as being an experience of women. The 2018 Joint Response Plan, which is the combined funding drive of all humanitarian actors and raises funds for the services to be provided that year reported,

Hundreds of incidents of gender-based violence are reported weekly. Many women and girls have been exposed to widespread and severe forms of sexual violence in Myanmar before and during flight. (p55)

The same report states ‘though there are only a very limited number of reported cases of male survivors of GBV, there is an indication that boy children and adolescents have been exposed to risks of GBV’ (p56)’. Consequently, all actors sharing information from Cox’s Bazar focused on sexual violence as being a female experience.

The outcome of this focus on women and girls was an increased demand for humanitarian actors to provide GBV services specifically for women and girls. The provision of more services for women and girls resulted in more women coming forward and consequently more avenues for investigators to access female survivors. It also created a more normalised environment where women were encouraged to speak about their experiences of sexual violence, while the reverse happened for male survivors. There was limited access for investigation teams, and an environment that did not facilitate disclosures from male survivors.

It wasn’t until November 2018, after the release of the first September 2018 Fact-Finding Mission report, that the Women’s Refugee Commission released its report ‘It’s Happening to Our Men as Well”: Sexual Violence Against Rohingya Men and Boys. The WRC report did not document cases of sexual violence, but conducted an ‘exploratory qualitative study to examine the nature and characteristics of sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya men and boys in Myanmar…and to evaluate access to services in Bangladesh’ which was done through focus group discussions (p8). The report found that ‘in addition to women and girls, Rohingya men and adolescent boys appear to be targeted for conflict-related sexual violence in Myanmar’ and recommended that services for male and female survivors needed urgent strengthening (p9). However, by this stage the vast majority of documentation had been done and the ‘overdocumentation’ of the Rohingya crisis had overtaken discussions meaning there was no interest in following up on the findings of the WRC report.

Reliance on Humanitarian Actors

The lack of services for male survivors remains a serious gap in the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar. Few services are set up to receive male survivors of sexual violence in a sensitive manner. Seeking help requires male victims to recount the sexual violence committed against them multiple times. Most therefore elect not to use the services at all. Men’s Engagement facilities are intended as a reception centre for both male perpetrators of violence against women, and male survivors of sexual violence. Consequently, until the point of disclosure, a man seeking a service from that facility is just as likely to be treated as a perpetrator as a victim.

Equally as challenging for men, the systems set up by medical facilities to receive sexual violence referrals in a discreet way are designed for women and girls. Some facilities, for example, use a flower card system, whereby cards with a flower on it are given to survivors being referred to the facility. When they approach the facility, they can hand the card to the triage nurse who knows that patient needs to go directly to the female midwife. There is no separate system for male survivors. If men want to be fast-tracked to a private consultation to disclose their injuries, they either have to disclose at the front desk in view of the other waiting patients, or use the flower card to see a female midwife. One of the most common observations of Rohingya male survivors is the confusion they feel about their gender now they have experienced sexual violence because ‘only women can be raped’. Putting men through the same feminised referral system as female survivors exacerbates this pain and confusion.

Many of the men who have experienced sexual violence continue to suffer from chronic injuries which are not treated by humanitarian actors. Injuries such as erectile dysfunction, disfigurement to genitals and injuries to the rectum require specialised treatment and/or surgery, which are not provided by humanitarian services in Cox’s Bazar. As a result, men who manage to get through the many barriers they face accessing services, are told they cannot be treated.

Understanding the Cultural Context

The lack of services available for male survivors in Cox’s Bazar has also led to an absence of language to discuss this question. In Rohingya language, sexual violence is a gendered term, referring to an act that is directed against women and girls. The result is when investigators ask men and boys whether they experienced sexual violence, the answer will invariably be “no”. Recently, Victim Advocates International (“VAI”) reviewed 3 245 complaints collected by the ARSPH, a Rohingya civil society group that formed in the camps in Cox’s Bazar after the 2017 displacement. The complaints received were quantitative in nature and delivered in list form often with a single word description of the complaint such as ‘arrested’, ‘rape’ or ‘gunshot’. Seven male complainants from the same area listed “arrested”, with the same arrest date. One of the seven then shared a more detailed complaint, indicating that he had experienced sexual violence while in detention. After tracing the other six complainants, it was discovered that they had all be subjected to sexualised torture by having a steel rod inserted into their anus.

A cultural understanding of sexual violence is critical. A gendered understanding of the term “rape” is not unique to the Rohingya context or language. However, for many communities, the idea that men can be raped is foreign, or conflated with homosexuality. The outcome is an absence of language for men to use to describe what happened to them. Instead, revealing the attacks against them leads to pain, confusion and shame. There is an urgent need for specialised services specifically for male survivors, from providers who understand and can work within this cultural and linguistic context.

Inclusion of Men and Boys

There is a strong basis for including sexual violence against men and boys in submissions before accountability mechanisms such as the ICJ. Men can often provide more detailed evidence than women survivors. Very few Rohingya women speak Burmese and were actively engaged in public life back in Myanmar.  As such, few were familiar with members of the Border Guard Police and Tatmadaw that frequented their villages. As such women’s descriptions of events are often limited to visual observations. Men who spoke Burmese could communicate with their attacker and provide more detailed evidence of their motivation and identity.

To date, the extent of sexual violence perpetrated against men and boys in Rakhine state by Myanmar officials is unknown. This is unlikely to change while services for male survivors remain inadequate in Cox’s Bazar. Given the current situation, funding for specialised services for male survivors of sexual violence with chronic injuries is urgently needed. One avenue for resources could be the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims which, in addition to providing reparations to victims following convictions, has an assistance mandate which enables victims of crimes (as defined in Rule 85 of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence) who have suffered physical, psychological and/or material harm as result of war crimes, to receive assistance separately from, and prior to, a conviction by the Court. 

There are many men and boys living in Cox’s Bazar with serious, untreated injuries both physical and mental. For proceedings, whether at the ICC, ICJ, or other accountability mechanisms, to fully capture the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya community, there needs to be a recognition that the low reporting of sexual violence against men and boys has been significantly influenced by the context. The TFV is in a unique position to address this and provide access to avenues that will allow male survivors to not only be included in legal proceedings, and ensure they have access to treatment.

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Asia-Pacific, Featured, General, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Organizations, Public International Law
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