Sexual Violence among Men and Boys; a Forbidden but Necessary Discourse
It is way over time to own up to the fact that men are, just like women, increasingly either victims of, or susceptible to, sexual gender based violence (SGBV). In fact, the World Health Organization has identified sexual violence against men and boys as a significant problem, even though it has until this point, been largely ignored by stakeholders such as NGOs, health care providers, government agencies and law enforcement authorities.
To a certain extent, this can be attributed to a general tendency to conflate sexual violence with violence against women and girls, which in turn solidifies the perception that it is an issue reserved for women, which then limits any kind of substantial response available to victims falling outside of this group, which includes men and boys. This then means that male victims’ experiences of sexual violence continue to not just be under-reported, but also misunderstood, trivialized or mis-characterized.
Communities often uphold, practice or end up normalizing various forms of abuse against men, which include SGBV, forced circumcision and even castration. The stigma attached to sexual abuse against men is so high that even where a man is a survivor of sexual abuse, the typical community response is to isolate or alienate him. This, coupled with the perceived shame attached to gender-based violence against men in such a patriarchal society, as well as the relatively lenient penalties meted out to offenders in formal and traditional judicial systems, ends up silencing victims.
The 2014 National Crime Research Centre Report on Gender Based Violence indicated that more men than women reported GBV to be bodily harm inflicted by a woman on man and psychological harm inflicted by a woman on a man. This reflects a gender bias in which the experience of men and cultural change in which men admit being victimized by women.
The Annual Crime Report 2015 highlighted a 22% increase in cases of sodomy, which it concluded may be just a small fraction of cases that actually happen. One thing is clear – Male victims are reluctant to acknowledge the sexual nature of the violations committed against them. This can happen in order to avoid the social stigma attached to such acts or may be due to the fear of either being perceived as weak, labeled homosexual, or being accused of having “wanted it.”
Even in instances where men report acts of sexual violence, those receiving the reports rarely handle the case with the sensitivity and awareness required. Medical practitioners, for example, may not be adequately trained to recognize, identify, or treat male victims or they may themselves accuse male victims of homosexuality or otherwise perpetuate social misconceptions about these crimes.
Legislation in Kenya has made tremendous progress in recognizing sexual violence against men. The Sexual Offenses Act, which was enacted in response to curb the escalating sexual violence in society, defines ‘rape’ as when a person intentionally and unlawfully commits an act which causes penetration with his or her genital organs; this includes the anus as a genital organ, thereby recognizing sodomy. The Act is also gender neutral, by recognizing instances where women can also rape men. The enactment of the Sexual Offences Act has however not been matched with the adequate awareness or training for both law-enforcement officers and relevant justice system agents.
The National Guidelines on the Management of Sexual Violence is a guiding policy framework spelling out the essential procedures and services for the management of survivors of sexual violence. This is a welcome and necessary response to the devastating effects of sexual violence on survivors and hence the need for them to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and minimize the harm already occasioned. The guidelines are separated along gender lines, further making them capable of meeting the peculiarity of each gender, thereby ensuring the needs of male survivors are also adequately addressed.
Kenya’s Judiciary has also made tremendous effort in securing the rights of men and especially boys, where there has been a worrying trend of institutions such as the Police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution, charging boys with defilement if two minors are caught engaging in sexual intercourse. Justice Hellen Omondi of the Homa Bay High Court most recently recognized the lack of coherence in the Law, where a boy was charged alone, whereas, in accordance with the Sexual Offences Act, he could not have consented to sex basing on his age: Therefore, he too, was a victim of defilement.
While sexual violence against men and boys is slowly being incorporated into a larger understanding of sexual and gender-based violence, more needs to be done to increase awareness both about the issue and its actionable responses. This includes greater acknowledgement about the existence of male victims of sexual violence, and the myriad of challenges limiting their full access to, and participation in, access to justice.
The writer of this article is Kevin Mwangi, an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, a 2018 Young Kenya Lawyer of the Year nominee and a 2018 fellow of the Young Africa Leadership Initiative.