Not only women, but also many men are raped in violent eastern Congo. They suffer from social stigma and receive little to no support from aid agencies. After fleeing to Uganda, they are particularly at risk due to the recently passed anti-gay law.
Kampala – ‘I would rather have died than to have been forced to experience this.’ Steven Kighoma stares into the distance with an empty look in his eyes. Soldiers kidnapped the 29-year-old Congolese in 2010 and took him to an army camp. ‘First I had to help translate, but after a few days I was tied to a pole bent over in one of the huts.’
While Kighoma covers his eyes with both hands and starts to tremble all over his body, he tells how the soldiers pulled down his pants and started to rape him over and over again. ‘I screamed. It was so incredibly painful. And while the blood ran down my legs, the militaries laughed at me right in the face.’
Forced to show his battered anus in front of everyone
Kighoma manages to escape and flees directly to neighboring Uganda. He’s heavily traumatized and suffers continuous bleeding but he’s too afraid to tell anyone. Only after seven months, when the rectal ulcers start to infect badly, he gathers up all his courage and goes to the hospital. ‘You? Raped being a man? That’s impossible’, is the doctors response who then starts complaining about refugees coming up with something new over and over again.
Having to prove his story to the doctor, Kighoma is forced to pull down his pants and to show his battered anus not only to the doctor but also to nurses, other patients and even casual visitors. Totally horrified, the doctor calls the Congolese a homosexual. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and another 39 African countries. When the doctor even threatens to call the police, Kighoma pulls up his pants and leaves, deeply ashamed of himself.
Sexual violence against men a major problem
Steven Kighoma is no exception. American scientists held a survey in 2010 among a thousand families in eastern Congo, a region that has been plagued by militia violence for years. They came to the conclusion that 24 percent of men have been victim of some form of conflict-related sexual violence – mainly rape – compared to 40 percent of the women.
‘Sexual violence against men is a major problem’, Chris Dolan states. He’s the director of the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in the Ugandan capital Kampala, that ended up finally helping Kighoma. The Brit heard about sexual violence against men for the first time in the late nineties when he was doing dissertation research in Northern Uganda. He now leads one of the few organizations that try to also help male victims.
They are automatically perceived as gay
Many male victims don’t dare to speak about their experiences with anyone. ‘They are afraid to be ostracized by their community,” Onen Ongwech, social worker at the RLP, says. ‘They are cursed according to their culture and religion, they feel robbed of their masculinity and in a homophobic society like Uganda they are automatically perceived as being gay.’
Also male victims having fled from Rwanda, Eritrea and Somalia have asked the RLP for help. Ongwech explains that it’s still a taboo to talk about sex in East Africa. “As a result, even medical professionals often don’t know that also men can be rape-victims.”
A diaper full of blood
Therefore, many victims suffer alone for a long time receiving no support whatsoever. André Lufungola (40) is one of them. Rebels kidnapped him in eastern Congo and raped him in the bush on a daily basis for three months.
Once in Uganda, the police didn’t believe his story. The UN refugee agency UNHCR did nothing and aid organization Interaid referred him to the state hospital where the doctor in the end only gave him a painkiller. ” I walked around with a diaper for two years because I was seriously bleeding. And no one wanted to help me,” the shy Congolese mumbles while looking at the ground. Eventually, someone advised him to get in touch with the RLP, referring him to a private clinic. There he immediately underwent anal surgery.
Abused with metal rods and screwdrivers
Sometimes men get sexually abused in other ways as well, Ongwech continues. ‘Metal rods and screwdrivers get inserted into their anus; they are forced to penetrate a hole in a banana tree; they have to sit with their genitals over a fire or have to drag stones tied to their penis.’
While many clients don’t want to talk about their experiences initially, Ongwech is now able to recognize male rape victims. ‘At first, many of them don’t want to sit down. If they do, they often lean on one buttock, avoid eye contact, complain about serious lower back pain and tell me how they have been tortured specifically ‘by men’.’
Often abandoned by their wife
Their silence is understandable as many women even leave their husband after finding out he was raped, social worker Salome Atim explains. ‘In the African culture men are not supposed to be vulnerable’, she clarifies.
The wives of raped men have been asking her: ‘Is this still my husband? Or is he now a woman? And if he can be raped, who will then protect me?’ When one of her clients had told his wife that he was raped, the woman grabbed all her things, took their child and left. The next day the man begged Atim for pills to commit suicide. According to the social worker, around 80 percent of raped men become suicidal.
Not enough money for food
The sexual violence often causes major financial problems as well. The 38-year-old Alain Kabenga finds it very hard not being able to sustain his family. ‘I should be the strongest person – the one who manages to feed his family – but often I don’t even have enough money to buy food.’
Kabenga was a priest in eastern Congo. Government soldiers took revenge on him after he had assisted a critical journalist. ‘They tortured me for many days in an empty house. “Then they forced me to take off my clothes, they tied me to a chair sitting backwards, they put a metal rod in my anus and raped me several times’, Kabenga tells with averted gaze.
His doctor in Kampala advised him to not perform any heavy labor, because it may trigger new bleedings. ‘But that’s the only work we refugees have been allowed to do here in Uganda’, he sighs. The former Congolese priest is about to be evicted from his home together with his wife and two children because he is two months behind on his rent.
Majority of organizations only focus on women and children
One of the few academics to have looked into the issue in any detail is Lara Stemple, of the University of California’s Health and Human Rights Law Project. Her study Male Rape and Human Rights notes incidents of male sexual violence as a weapon of wartime or political aggression in countries such as El Salvador, Iran, Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka. The sexual abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is another well-known example.
‘Although these are not insignificant numbers, the United Nations and the majority of non-governmental organizations are still focusing only on women and children’, Stemple says when speaking to me by phone from the U.S.. She consulted over 4000 aid organizations that focus on sexual violence, and only 3 percent mentioned ‘violence against men’ in their documentation. Stemple: ‘Women are still automatically viewed as the rape victims and men as the monolithic perpetrator class. The fact that many counselors haven’t been trained to recognize male rape victims and most survivors keep quiet, maintains this preconception, states the American researcher.
Donors require that 80% of the money will be spend on women
Atim acknowledges the problem of biased donors. ‘When I apply for funding, donors often demand that 80 percent of the money will be spend on women. But what if 50 percent of my clients are women and 50 percent are men? Should I then only help 20 percent of the men, send the others away and reimburse 30 percent of the money?’
‘The global view that sexual violence is only perpetrated against women and girls, is very persistent,’ Dolan also notes while adding that during the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict earlier this month in London, the focus again was mostly on women and children.
The RLP director, however, does see some minor improvements. The refugee agency UNHCR, for example, has recently published a guideline – written by Dolan – on how social workers should deal with male rape victims. On the initiative of Zainab Bangura, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, the UN also held their first workshop on this topic, aimed at policymakers. They were taught how to recognize male victims and how the rape of men acts as a weapon of war as well.
Terrified by new anti-gay law
Several male rape victims have formed two self-help groups in Uganda with each more than fifty members. ‘I’ve decided to become an activist to stand up for the rights of male survivors’, Kabenga who’s the president of ‘Men of Hope’ states. After he gave a speech about the topic in one of the refugee camps, many more men came forward.
At the same time, however, the men have been seriously affected by the Anti-Homosexuality law which has been signed by Ugandans president Yoweri Museveni last February. This anti-gay law legislated the imprisonment of homosexuals for 14 years to life and stipulated punishment for anyone supporting homosexuals with jail sentences of 5 to 7 years. ‘The law led to a sharp rise in attacks on gay men which also endanger us as many people automatically think that we are gay’, Kabenga explains, who was beaten up a few times as well after men recognized him from TV interviews he did with Ugandan media. Because of these incidents he stopped to organize meetings with his Men of Hope, he fears for his life and he even considers fleeing to another country with his family.
Ugandan government accuses RLP of promoting homosexuality
The new law makes it even more difficult for male rape victims to receive medical treatment because assisting gay men, is now illegal. The Ugandan bishop Charles Wamika of Jinja, applauding the new law, directed hospitals not to serve LGBT clients any longer. And as even doctors frequently view male rape victims automatically as being homosexuals, they will probably not be welcome at most hospitals.
The RLP too is under severe pressure now because of the new law. The government no longer allows the organization to enter refugee camps so they can work with their clients nor to receive them in their office in Kampala. The Ugandan government has suspended the RLP and accuses the organization of promoting homosexuality. Presumably, the government targets the RLP because it is part of a coalition of organizations that have filed a petition in court against the anti-gay law.
‘If we remain silent, nobody will ever help us’
Steven Kighoma has also become a member of one of the self-help groups. After he was humiliated by the doctor, who called him a homosexual, he stayed in bed for months barely eating to minimize his bathroom visits. Eventually, an herbalist treated him using a ginger mixture that painfully burned but in the end healed the wound. Due to the rape, the Congolese still experiences severe lower back pains for which he has to wear a corset continuously and gets special treatment using infrared lamps.
Despite his poor health conditions and facing financial problems as well, he tries to stay hopeful and has found the courage to speak up about the traumatizing experiences for the first time. But this isn’t without risk. ‘In Congo, they would kill me right away. And also in Uganda I have to fear for my life. But if we remain silent, nobody will ever help us.’