Sexual Violence Against Men, Boys, and Transgender Women Happening Now during Syrian Conflict
Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, men and boys and transgender women have been subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence by the Syrian government and non-state armed groups, including the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Heterosexual men and boys are vulnerable to sexual violence in Syria, but men who are gay or bisexual—or perceived to be—and transgender women are particularly at risk.
While women and girls are disproportionately targeted by conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), men and boys are also impacted. However, existing services within gender-based violence (GBV) and child protection are focused almost exclusively on responding to the needs of women and girls and very little attention is paid to the needs of men and boys. Limited data and underreporting—in part fueled by stigma around male vulnerability and reluctance to talk about experiences of sexual violence or seek help for its long-term physical and psychological impact—have contributed to male survivors not receiving adequate attention and help.
This report is based on interviews Human Rights Watch conducted in Lebanon with 40 gay and bisexual men and transgender women—some of whom were perceived by perpetrators to be gay men—and non-binary individuals, as well as 4 heterosexual men. The survivors all described their experience of sexual violence in Syria. We also conducted interviews with 20 caseworkers and representatives of humanitarian organizations operating in Lebanon. While many of the men and boys and transgender women interviewed have also experienced sexual violence in Lebanon, those incidents lie outside the purview of this report.
The report finds that men and boys, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are vulnerable to sexual violence in the context of the Syrian conflict. According to interviewees, gay and bisexual men and transgender women are subject to increased and intensified violence based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The sexual violence described included rape, sexual harassment, genital violence (beating, electric shock and burning of genitals), threat of rape of themselves or female family members, and forced nudity by state and non-state armed groups. This violence has taken place in various settings, including Syrian detention centers, checkpoints, central prisons, and within the ranks of the Syrian army.
This report also finds that survivors of sexual violence may suffer from various psychological traumas such as depression, post-traumatic stress, sexual trauma, loss of hope and paranoid thoughts. Due to the sexual violence they have been subjected to, survivors may also suffer from physical traumas, including severe pain in their rectum and genitals, rectal bleeding, and muscle pain, and may have sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
Men and boys, transgender women, and non-binary survivors of sexual violence told Human Rights Watch that they did not seek any medical or mental health services in Syria for a range of reasons, including shame, fear of stigma, and a lack of trust in the health care system. Syrian survivors of sexual violence who fled to Lebanon told Human Rights Watch they found limited services and inadequate support from humanitarian organizations. This is often due to lack of funding and personnel trained to respond to their specific needs. For example, there are no protection facilities in Lebanon, such as safe shelters, for men or trans women.
In 2013, the United Nations (UN) Security Council for the first time stated in Security Council Resolution 2106 that conflict-related sexual violence also affects men and boys. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including All Survivors Project, the Women’s Refugee Commission, Lawyers & Doctors for Human Rights and the Refugee Law Project, have provided significant documentation on the nature and extent of sexual violence perpetrated against men and boys in Syria and elsewhere, and the specific needs of male survivors. This has helped to address the dearth of research.
In March 2018, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (the Syria COI) published a report with detailed evidence on sexual violence against men and boys in Syria. On April 23, 2019, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2467 on conflict-related sexual violence, which recognizes that men and boys are also targets of sexual violence in both conflict and post-conflict settings. Resolution 2467 acknowledges the need for enhanced medical and mental health support for survivors of sexual violence and calls on UN member countries to ensure that survivors of sexual violence receive nondiscriminatory access to medical and psychosocial care based on their needs.
The explicit recognition and documentation of CRSV against men and boys as sexual violence is an important step to ensure provision of services tailored to the needs of all survivors of sexual violence. This moves the issue out from being considered only under the more general rubric of “torture,” under which it has previously fallen in reporting and legal analysis. This report aims to shed light on the sexual nature of crimes perpetrated against Syrian men and boys and transgender women.
In a context of shame, stigma, and silence surrounding sexual violence against men and boys—whatever their sexual orientation—and also for transgender women and non-binary people, acknowledging such violence is a prerequisite to providing adequate services and care. It is also vital in challenging the social and cultural assumptions that men are invulnerable, which often underpins the stigma experienced by male and transgender survivors. Increased research on the topic, and attention to the plight of male survivors at the UN Security Council, adds to the momentum toward more adequate service provision.
International donors, including the European Union, should urgently provide resources for tailored medical, psychological and social support programs in Lebanon for men and boys, trans women, and non-binary survivors of sexual violence, without diverting funding from services for women and girls, which is already very scarce. Without funding, humanitarian organizations and service providers in Lebanon cannot meet the needs of the full range of CRSV survivors. Service providers and humanitarian organizations in Lebanon should provide comprehensive and confidential medical and mental health services to male, transgender, and non-binary survivors of sexual violence, with staff trained to handle their needs effectively and appropriately.