The Forgotten Victims of Gender-Based Violence

Source: Tasnim News Agency

The Rohingya Crisis continues to make headlines, as more and more evidence of shocking human rights violations comes to light. Gender-based violence has been prevalent throughout the crisis. ActionAid’s country director in Bangladesh spoke recently about her experience visiting refugee camps in the country, ‘to speak to the women and girls who have borne the brunt of the crisis in many ways.’

Many Rohingya women arrive in the refugee camps alone, or are now the heads of their families. In fact, it is now estimated that 70% of Rohingya refugees are women and girls. Reading the accounts of these women, who have experienced and witnessed such unimaginable horrors which no-one should ever have to endure, a nagging question slowly begins to emerge: if most Rohingya refugees are women, where are all the Rohingya men? Reading further into survivors’ accounts provides an answer…

‘Two weeks ago, the military arrived in our village. They entered every house and rounded up all of the young men.’

‘Soldiers killed my brothers in front of me and raped me. They shot my father.’

‘Marium, 60, recounted how the security forces rounded up all the men in her village and took them away. She never saw them again.’

‘We saw them slit throats and bellies, shoot our men, and rape our women. They killed the older men, and then the men my age.’

‘The soldiers separated the men from the women. The villagers pleaded for their lives and dropped to their knees, hugging the soldiers’ boots. The soldiers kicked them off and methodically killed all the men, said Rajuma and several other survivors from Tula Toli…

…many of them are dead.

It is becoming increasingly clear that thousands of Rohingya are being systematically slaughtered, not only because they are Muslims, but also because they are men.

The history of gendercide

Sadly, the systematic targeting of male civilians for execution during conflict is nothing new. The 2005 Human Security Report states that ‘There is…compelling evidence that non-combatant males ‘have been and continue to be the most frequent targets of mass killing and genocidal slaughter as well as a host of lesser atrocities and abuses’.’ Even from just the past 50 years, examples abound of gender-based mass killings perpetrated against male civilians – so much so that they begin to look less like isolated incidents, and more like a common feature of modern conflict:

  • The 1971 genocide in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) during which an estimated 2.4 million out of 3 million Bengalis killed were adult men.
  • The 1988 Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, the principal purpose of which was the extermination of all adult males of military service age.

    Memorial to the Rwandan Genocide

  • The 1994 Rwandan Genocide, during which, according to the Rwandan government, over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, the overwhelming majority of whom were men and boys.
  • The 1998-1999 Kosovo War, during which ‘an overriding tactic was evident in Serb military strategy: the gender-selective detention and mass killing of ethnic-Albanian men, especially those of “battle age.”’
  • And many other examples which are too numerous to list here.

Defining gender-based violence

Definitions of gender-based violence are highly varied, but most are variations on the theme of ‘violence targeted to a person because of their gender, or that affects them because of their special roles or responsibilities in the society.’ Going by this, the examples listed above would very closely match the definition of gender-based violence. A common theme is the deliberate targeting of males based on their gender; many accounts describe men being purposefully separated from the women within a community before being killed. It also seems highly likely that men as a group – particularly men of military age – were chosen as targets of violence because of their traditional gender roles as fighters and protectors. As outlined by the Human Security Centre in their explanation of the targeted killings of civilian men during the Kosovo War: ‘The explanation? Part revenge and part bleak strategic logic: killing battle-age males minimises future threats to the victors.’

‘It’s what a man’s got to do’ – US Selective Service leaflets.

Using this definition, combat deaths could also be classed as gender-based violence against men. It has long been understood that men constitute the overwhelming majority of combat fatalities – and, after all, these men are only put in the firing line as a result of their traditional gender roles; be that through cultural pressure to volunteer, or through forcible conscription by their government or occupying force. For example, even today the United States only requires men to register for the military selective service.

However, despite the gender neutrality of the term ‘gender-based violence’, and the relevance of the term with regard to the experiences of men listed in the section above, many organisations simply see it as synonymous with the term ‘violence against women’. For example, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) writes on its website: ‘The terms are used interchangeably throughout this website and EIGE’s work, as it is always understood that gender-based violence means violence against women…’ This serves to deny the lived experience of the untold number of men across the world who have suffered violence as a direct result of their gender.

The case is often made that gender-based violence primarily – or uniquely – affects women and girls ‘as a result of unequal distribution of power in society between women and men.’ It is beyond doubt that women and girls are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual violence during conflict, and that this is rooted in dynamics of gender and power. But it must equally be recognised that the selection of men as targets of mass killings also stems from the unequal distribution of power in society between women and men. The societal power which men traditionally hold ironically makes them more vulnerable to being intentionally killed during conflict, as they are seen as inherently more threatening and capable of resistance than their female counterparts. This is particularly true in low-intensity conflict and counter-insurgency operations.

The power of words

The exclusion of men from the definition of gender-based violence is not merely of academic importance; it has a profound impact on the allocation of funding by international organisations. For instance, the United Nations has a whole host of programmes, and even an international day, dedicated to the elimination of violence against women. Yet no equivalent programme exists for the elimination of violence against men.

‘Leave no one behind’: logo for the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

On the ground, it can lead to men being excluded from efforts to protect civilians during conflict, as they are not considered sufficiently vulnerable. Take the below example given by a UNHCR Official in 2002:

Officially refugees were not allowed to cross the Afghani border into Pakistan last year, only ‘vulnerable’ groups, only women and children. But in fact the men were perhaps the most vulnerable and the women themselves were most concerned about the men who had the risk of being conscripted to the Taliban at this time.

It also has implications within the realm of international law. The International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention of 1930 – which is still in force today – absolutely prohibits the use of forced labour if its victims are women and children, yet under some circumstances permits the use of men aged 18 to 45. Furthermore, military conscription and prison labour (which overwhelmingly affect men) are excluded from forced labour regulations. If forced labour and military conscription, which together have directly led to the deaths of millions of men throughout history, were more widely recognised as forms of gender-based violence, there would be a strong case to challenge this discriminatory legislation.

Cultural blindness to male victims of violence

The tendency in some international organisations to view gender-based violence as a phenomenon solely affecting women and girls reflects a recurring attitude throughout Western culture (and many other cultures for that matter) which views maleness as antithetical to vulnerability. Although this attitude is better suited to the Age of Chivalry than to the 21st century, it is still highly prevalent, even in countries where much work has been done to combat harmful gender stereotypes.

It can be seen in the media response to Boko Haram’s attacks on schoolchildren, with the eruption of global outrage and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign when 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped, yet barely a ripple when news emerged, both before and after this incident, of the murder of hundreds of school-age boys and the kidnap of thousands.

Daily Mail (left) and Daily Express (right) coverage of the arrival of male Syrian child refugees in the UK

It can be seen in the response to the arrival in the UK of the first wave of Syrian child refugees, who were lambasted as undeserving in the reactionary press because they were predominantly male and looked too ‘adult’. So, despite having fled a conflict where 75% of civilian casualties have been adult men, they were deemed not vulnerable enough to deserve sympathy or sanctuary.

Although many rightly recoil in disgust at the attitude of the likes of the Daily Mail towards male refugees, we perpetuate the same outdated gender stereotypes when we exclude male victims from definitions of gender-based violence. Lots of important work has been done in order to better understand the role which gender plays in violence against women during conflict, so that we can better understand and eradicate that blight upon the world, yet the role of gender in violence against men has been largely ignored.

There are thousands upon thousands of men who would still be alive today if they had been born female. For their sake if nothing else, we can’t afford to ignore it any longer.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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