Two male political dissidents in Egypt, Omar el-Shouekh and Fadi Samir, reported that while in police detention in Cairo they were beaten, tortured and subjected to sexual assault.
Their claim brings renewed attention to a phenomenon that is largely ignored and poorly addressed but that causes significant psychological and physical damage to its victims: sexual abuse of males. New legal instruments have to be put in place to address what is a serious human rights and medical problem.
Male rape is widespread, particularly in conflict situations. Because few men report cases of rape, statistics under-represent the actual number of men who are sexually assaulted.
In addition to Egypt, the rape of political prisoners has been reported in Chile, Greece, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), El Salvador, and Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict.
The number of male victims of rape in some conflict situations is staggering. The United Nations stated that out of 5,000 males held in detention in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, 80 percent acknowledged having been sexually abused.
During the war in El Salvador, 76 percent of male political prisoners reported having been sexually abused.
In Iran, allegations of rape and sexual abuse of both males and females in prison started to emerge after the Republic of Iran was established in 1979. In Uganda, Sudan, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are many personal testimonies that attest to the continuation of this practice.
At the Sexual Violence and Research Initiative (SVRI) meeting carried out in Cape Town, South Africa, in October of 2011, Jocelyn Kelly, of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University, stated that the term “sexual violence” in the DRC had become synonymous with the rape of women by armed militia.
As a consequence, programs excluded male survivors of abuse and gender-base violence (GBV).
Rape is always a traumatic event with long-term physical, psychological and social effects. Among the physical consequences are the tearing and abrasions of rectal and anal areas, which demand immediate attention because they put the victims of rape at increased risk of bacterial infections and HIV.
In addition, victims experience pain in the stomach and the rectal areas as well as headaches and loss of memory.
Among the psychological reactions to sexual assault, men report feelings of shame and humiliation, loss of self-respect, anger and anxiety attacks, flashbacks of the event, depression and mood swings and changes in sexual activity. Survivors of rape may manifest some elements of what has been called Rape-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (RR-PTSD), which is considered a variety of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In general, few psychotherapists are familiar with the symptoms and treatment of RR-PTSD.
Men are particularly reluctant to declare that they were subjected to rape. When men who were raped return to their communities they — and their families — face stigmatization. A study on rape of men quotes a respondent saying, “When a man is raped, his family is also raped.”
Frequently families with a male member who has been raped lose status in their community.
Another reason why males resist denouncing their rape is that they are afraid of being branded as homosexuals, especially in countries that discriminate against gay people.
Moses Kamba, who was raped by soldiers in his hometown in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, told Al Jazeera: “After what they did to me, I felt ashamed. It was a bad experience in my life. I left Congo when I was broken and confused. I felt I had lost my dignity, with too much pain on my body.”
Physicians and paramedical personnel must be trained on how to deal with the victims of male rape. Victims need counseling and support to denounce the abuse and to seek help with legal and labor matters.
Addressing sexual violence against women and men is one of the critical human rights challenges of our time.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.