Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Syria and Turkey

September 2018

Conflict-related sexual violence is among the many human rights violations that have characterized the armed conflict in Syria. This report by the All Survivors Project explores the patterns and vulnerabilities of men and boys to this violence and provides guidance to strengthen protections for this population.

  • All Survivors Project
Research for this report was conducted between September 2017 and July 2018 using publicly available literature and interviews with 66 key informants.
Almost all of those interviewed considered Syrian government detention to be the site of greatest risk of sexual violence for men and boys.
For men and boys who have suffered sexual violence in detention, the consequences can be particularly severe and long-lasting when untreated.

Executive Summary

The armed conflict in Syria has resulted in a human rights and humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions in which the civilian population suffers daily threats to life, dignity, and wellbeing. Humanitarian needs far outstrip the capacity to respond, and access to aid is routinely denied by all sides. The conflict has also given rise to massive internal displacement and an unprecedented refugee crisis in which millions of people have fled the country. Turkey hosts by far the greatest number of refugees from Syria, at just over 3.5 million people, or 63.3% of registered refugees from Syria in the region.

Conflict-related sexual violence is among the many human rights violations that have characterised the armed conflict in Syria. While remaining a devastating problem for women and girls, sexual violence against men and boys has also been documented by the UN and by international and national non-governmental organisations (I/NGOs). Previous research has also revealed the ongoing risk of sexual violence to men and boys and to specific groups such as LBGT+ people as they flee Syria and in countries of asylum.

Research by All Survivors Project (ASP) for this report was conducted with the aim of deepening existing knowledge of patterns and vulnerabilities of men and boys to conflict-related sexual violence in Syria and exploring risks and vulnerabilities to sexual violence of men and boys fleeing from Syria to Turkey, both during the journey to and within Turkey itself. It also sought to gather the views from key stakeholders on the extent to which sexual violence against men and boys is factored into strategies, plans and programmes to prevent sexual violence and respond to the needs of survivors in Syria and Turkey, and to consider how these responses can be strengthened.

The research was conducted between September 2017 and July 2018 and involved a review of publicly available literature and interviews with 66 key informants which were conducted face-to-face during a field mission to Turkey in September 2017 or remotely by phone or Skype. Informants included representatives from UN agencies working on protection, child protection, and gender-based violence (GBV); experts in medical, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) working with national and international NGOs or independently; human rights defenders; LBGT+ activists; and academic researchers.

Many ASP informants believed that sexual violence against men and boys in Syria was more prevalent than has previously been documented and that the vulnerabilities of men and boys to sexual violence there are insufficiently understood. Their accounts also underscored continuing risks to men and boys who, far from finding safety when they flee from Syria, have also been subjected to sexual violence at the Syria/Turkey border and within Turkey itself.

Of the 66 informants interviewed by ASP, more than 60% were able to relate specific incidents of sexual violence against men and boys that had taken place in Syria. Consistent with existing documentation, almost all of those interviewed considered Syrian government detention to be the site of greatest risk of sexual violence for men and boys, although some also recounted incidents that had taken place in armed group detention. Interviewees also referred to cases of sexual violence that had occurred during house searches or at checkpoints and during forced recruitment by armed groups. However, informants also spoke of other risks that arise from or have been exacerbated by the armed conflict in Syria and the way in which civilian actors, including employers, family and community members, have been able to exploit the breakdown of law and order and of formal and informal protection mechanisms to commit acts of sexual violence.

ASP informants particularly emphasised the vulnerability of adolescent boys in Syria. They spoke about widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence against boys in Syrian government detention. In the words of one, “age is no barrier: from children to young men are targeted. There is a pattern that young men in their late teens or early twenties are specifically targeted although it can happen to everybody”. There was also significant concern about wider risks to boys of sexual violence arising from their gender-specific roles or expectations of them, including boys who are recruited and used as child soldiers or engaged in child labour. Concerns were raised about the lack of detailed information on the experience of boys and the need for further research into their vulnerability to sexual violence in these and other contexts. Likewise, gender minorities or those perceived as gender non-conforming were considered to be particularly vulnerable to sexual violence in Syria and in need of particular attention.

Although ASP’s primary research focus was on Syria, information gathered reinforced concerns about the risk of sexual violence to men and boys from Syria as they attempt to flee to Turkey. Interviewees spoke about the difficulty of crossing the border and of physical violence including of a sexual nature by Turkish border guards and smugglers. In one case, a humanitarian worker told ASP that they had provided support to a man who had been raped by four men involved in smuggling people from Syria into Turkey.

Within Turkey, the precarious legal, economic and social situation of many refugees and the lack of effective protection mechanisms contribute to an environment in which men and boys from Syria are vulnerable to sexual violence. This includes the context of child labour and the workplace, where men and boys have reportedly faced sexual exploitation and violence from employers; in refugee camps; in orphanages; in public spaces; and at home, where there are reports of sexual violence by members of the host community, landlords, neighbours and family members. Concerns were also raised about sexual harassment and violence against LBGT+ people from Syria.

Whether sexual violence occurred in Syria or Turkey, ASP interviewees attested to the devastating consequences for male survivors, their families and communities. They described physical injuries, and the short- and long-term psychological impacts on survivors including shame, loss of confidence, sleep disorders, feelings of powerlessness, confusion and suicidal thoughts. Feelings of emasculation and self-blame were also common issues, which were attributed to cultural norms and expectations of the roles of men and boys, including their role in protecting themselves and their families. Discriminatory laws, prejudice against LBGT+ people, rigid gender norms, and misunderstandings of sexual violence against males, was also seen as contributing to survivors being perceived as homosexual and of creating fear and anxiety among survivors about their own sexual orientation or identity. Interviewees also spoke of repercussions for relationships with spouses, families and communities, and of the stigma, blame, disbelief, mistrust and rejection suffered by survivors.

“It is completely destroying for men. If it becomes known that this man [was subjected to sexual violence], it means that this man has to leave this community [and go] where nobody knows that he has been sexually abused.”1

For men and boys who have suffered sexual violence as part of wider torture and ill-treatment in detention, the consequences can be particularly severe and long-lasting when untreated. Information provided by ASP informants also suggests a complex narrative in which male detainees are treated like heroes on their release (in contrast to female detainees, who are socially stigmatised), but at the same time, the reality of the sexual violence that has been experienced by many former detainees is ignored or treated as a source of shame to be silenced and denied.

“For the men, they celebrate when he comes out. They do not know or will not assume that he has been raped. But at the same time he will not be able to adapt or will not be able to express what happened.”2

Despite the apparently significant scale of sexual violence against men and boys in Syria and their continued vulnerability as they flee across borders and in countries of asylum including Turkey, ASP’s research highlights the inadequacy of current responses to it.

Within Syria, a combination of factors facilitate sexual violence against men and boys and contribute to the de facto impunity for those responsible. These include the lack of protection against rape for men and boys under Syrian law; the lack of access by independent monitors and humanitarian actors to places of detention; the lack of progress in agreeing to action plans
to end and prevent grave violations against children, including sexual violence, with UN “listed” state security forces and non-state armed groups; and the lack of criminal prosecutions of those responsible.

At the same time, the information provided by ASP interviewees also revealed a lack of a proactive or systematic effort to provide care and support for male survivors of sexual violence in Syria. Although child protection services appear better developed than other sectors and offer some possibility of support to boys who have experienced sexual violence, overall ASP informants described a situation of structural exclusion of male survivors from accessing timely, quality, safe, confidential, survivor-centred assistance and support.

“These cases are not dealt with inside Syria, there are no organisations that take care of them and men don’t talk.”3

Although there has been significant investment in strengthening capacity for the Clinical Management of Rape (CMR), there remain significant gaps in the geographical coverage of medical services for survivors of sexual violence. Concerns remain raised about the quality of medical services and the lack of referral systems for male survivors. It was also evident that, while routes to accessing support exist for women and children through women and girls’ safe spaces, community centres and child protection programmes, there are currently no equivalents for adult males. The lack of MHPSS services for male survivors of sexual violence inside Syria was likewise regarded as a significant problem and there was particular concern about the total absence of capacity and skills needed to provide the highly specialised and individually tailored interventions needed to support victims of sexual torture, many of whom are men and boys.

There exist significant external obstacles to providing humanitarian assistance to male survivors
of sexual violence in the face of so many acute and competing needs and in the complex and dangerous operating environment that exists in Syria. However, they also highlighted many issues within the humanitarian community that contribute to the exclusion of male survivors, particularly adult men, from services. Key among the “internal barriers” highlighted by ASP informants was a lack of acknowledgement that sexual violence can affect men and boys as well as women and girls. As a result, men and boys are largely overlooked in policy and planning discussions which in turn translates into a lack of outreach to and specific services for male survivors and an absence of entry points for them in existing services. Stereotypical ideas of masculinity were also seen as reinforcing perceptions among humanitarian workers that men can look after themselves and do not need help, and/or of men as perpetrators rather than victims.

Linked to a lack of acknowledgement is insufficient investment in organisational capacity building and staff training. Many interviewees spoke about a lack of expertise on sexual violence against men and boys within their own organisations, their partner organisations and in the humanitarian community more generally. Although some training is reportedly being rolled out which is said to include modules on case management of male survivors of sexual violence, there was criticism of the lack of attention to men and boys in existing training packages. It was also noted that, in addition to skills training, there is a need to challenge negative attitudes towards sexual violence against men and boys among humanitarian workers and to tackle cultural barriers which, according to interviewees, permeate much of the humanitarian community.

The lack of leadership within the humanitarian community on the issue of sexual violence against men and boys was also highlighted as undermining action and co-ordination. While a general problem, the lack of leadership was seen as having particular implications for men, who fall outside programs designed for women and children and for male survivors (both men and boys) of sexual torture in detention settings. Comments by some informants suggested confusion and tensions around the respective roles of human rights and humanitarian actors in protecting persons in detention and providing services and support to former detainees who have been subjected to sexual violence.

Lack of funding was seen as a fundamental obstacle to addressing sexual violence against men and boys. Notwithstanding significant shortfalls in the overall Syria appeal, interviewees noted the need for dedicated funding for responses to sexual violence against men and boys in order that funds are not diverted from much-needed programmes for women and girls.

Many of these same barriers to responding to the needs of male survivors in Syria also exist in Turkey, although a range of country-specific issues exist as well. Notwithstanding the significant pressure on public services created by the high numbers of refugees hosted by Turkey, and the efforts that have been made by the government to support refugees from Syria and elsewhere, the overall picture is one in which access to medical, MHPSS and other necessary support for male survivors is distressingly limited.

Many reasons were cited by interviewees for this situation: those who are not officially registered for Temporary Protection in Turkey do not qualify to receive services and support; there are huge difficulties and sensitivities involved in identifying male survivors among the Syrian refugee population in Turkey; there is insufficient knowledge among service providers in Turkey about the experiences of men and boys who have been detained in Syria and who may, therefore, be survivors of sexual violence; and finally, the lack of legal protection for sexual minorities in Turkey and more general intolerance and discrimination, creates specific barriers to accessing support for LBGT+ people among the Syrian refugee community. Language barriers faced by Arabic speakers from Syria in Turkey can prevent them from reporting sexual violence and accessing support. As was the case in Syria, MHPSS services lack specialists for survivors of torture, including sexual torture, although efforts are underway to build NGO capacity to provide these services for refugees and migrants in Turkey.

Relative to Syria, Turkey’s legislative framework provides legal protection for men and boys against sexual violence. However, there was little confidence among informants of the capacity of the Turkish legal system to deliver justice to male survivors of sexual violence. They spoke of a lack of sensitivity to male survivors by the police, judges, prosecutors and other judicial officials. Fear of negative responses and lack of action in response to complaints were seen as particularly prevalent concerns among LBGT+ refugees.

ASP informants made many recommendations about how responses to sexual violence against males could be strengthened in both Syria and Turkey. ASP has elaborated on these recommendations based on fundamental human rights norms and principles, and ASP’s analysis of information and its experience of working on sexual violence against males in other situations of armed conflict. A summary of these recommendations is provided below; further recommendations on achieving each objective are provided at the end of the main report.

Download the full report

Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Syria and Turkey

Programme manager, INGO, 7 October 2017.

Interview with confidential INGO source, Turkey, 24 September 2017.

Interview with gender-based violence case manager, Syrian NGO, 18 September 2017.