The global call for justice for victims of wartime sexual violence around the world has recently gained international attention when the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege. For years (if not decades), activists, policy-makers and scholars around the world have worked tirelessly to ensure accountability for crimes of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Important progress has been made, including at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and more recently by the International Criminal Court (ICC), where prosecuting SGBV is among the Office of the Prosecutor’s (OTP) key strategic goals.
However, whereas recent years have seen increasing consideration for redressing SGBV against women and girls, specific attention to justice for male-directed sexual violence remains missing. To date, only a handful of cases in the international criminal justice arena have included specific charges of sexual violence against men – for instance at the ICTY, or in the Bemba case at the ICC – and only a handful of studies have focused on the topic.
In a recently published paper in Social & Legal Studies, I seek to answer this question, by exploring what ‘justice’ means for male sexual violence survivors in Northern Uganda. The study –conducted in partnership with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) – highlights the viewpoints of 46 male sexual violence survivors from Northern Uganda. It is the first-ever systematic analysis of how to deliver justice for male sexual violence survivors in a post-conflict setting, in Northern Uganda as elsewhere globally. In Northern Uganda, crimes of sexual violence against men occurred during the early stages of the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group and the Ugandan government, mostly perpetrated by government soldiers against civilian men. In the current post-conflict context, however, the country’s diverse transitional justice landscape is particularly silent on SGBV in general, and on sexual violence against men in particular – reflective of the global neglect of justice for male survivors.
The research findings show that there is agreement amongst survivors that justice processes must respond to their gendered harms as a result of the sexual violations. What seems most needed for male survivors to experience a sense of justice includes official government acknowledgement, recognition, as well as reparations.
The majority of survivors emphasized that ‘for justice, we need our violations to be recognized’. For instance, during one of the group interviews, one of the survivors wore a shirt that – in celebration of the annual Day of International Justice on 17th July – read: ‘to me, justice is recognizing suffering’. In a context where oppressive gender norms render male (sexual) victimization as a strict social taboo, recognition of survivors’ stigmatized and silenced experiences is very important. This silencing can result in further harms, and often leads to social isolation and exclusion. According to the survivors, recognizing male survivors’ experiences of sexual abuse thus requires to break the silencing of their experiences: ‘If we keep the silence, we cannot move forward’, one survivor stated.
Directly related this, most male survivors who took part in the research also directly demand official government acknowledgement. In Uganda, the regime who is responsible for the perpetration of these crimes almost thirty years ago remains in power to date. ‘Justice is when the government acknowledges what happened to us’, one survivor explained. As articulated by another survivor,
the government should come out and acknowledge what they did. In most cases, when there are big meetings, we are not recognized, but they go into recognizing other vulnerable groups of people […]. What about us? We don’t have any voice and that will only change if the government acknowledges what happened to us.
For the male survivors from Uganda that I interviewed for this study, government acknowledgement can take the form of an official statement or an apology or can be delivered through criminal prosecutions or memorials.
For many survivors, acknowledgement is also seen as an important first step in accessing other measures, and in particular reparations. ‘If there is compensation, that means there is full acknowledgement’, one survivor expressed. Reparations are thus another fundamental aspect of justice for male sexual violence survivors in Northern Uganda. In particular material compensation – such as for instance the provision of agricultural tools – as well as physical and psychological rehabilitative measures are perceived as sufficient ways to respond to survivors’ gendered harms.
These reparative provisions were seen by many survivors as possibilities to enable them to provide for their families. Due to the sexual violations and their physical and psychological consequences, the majority of male survivors were for a long time unable to provide for their families, as they are socially expected to. As articulated by one survivor, ‘now that I am weak, the government should compensate me with oxen and ox-ploughs to dig and to allow me to sell stuff and support the children.’ Another survivor explained that ‘my major justice need is rehabilitation. So when I am physically rehabilitated, I will get healing and strength, and I will get a normal life like any other community member’.
This focus on hoping to obtain ‘a normal life like any other community member’ is important for understanding male survivors’ views on justice. My research findings, therefore, suggest that male sexual violence survivors in Northern Uganda broadly desire ‘justice as a better future’, in which they are able to fully participate in community life and repair their previously impacted gender identities as well as social relationships. Such an approach to justice in post-conflict contexts is more responsive to survivors’ needs and priorities, and can thus serve survivors on their own terms.