By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, March 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Armed groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) have raped men and boys for years in an emerging pattern of sexual violence that is "underreported and largely ignored", researchers said on Monday.
A study by international research group All Survivors' Project was one of the first to document sex crimes against males in the war-torn country, where responders tend to focus on female survivors, experts said.
In a report, the All Survivors' Project identified dozens of cases of men and boys being raped during armed attacks when they were captive, or because they refused to join armed groups.
"Findings point to a discernible pattern of male sexual victimisation that warrants urgent attention," it said.
CAR has been riven by sectarian conflict since Muslim-majority Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in 2013, triggering a backlash by mostly Christian anti-balaka militias.
Fighters have used sexual violence against men and boys as a tool to "humiliate, emasculate, and terrorise" perceived enemies, said All Survivors' Project director Charu Lata Hogg.
"Our research only gives a glimpse into what is happening," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Numbers are hard to come by, but one survey found that 14 percent of gender-based violence victims in the country were male in 2016, according to humanitarian organisations.
That figure was likely low, said Hogg, since shame and stigma prevent men from speaking up, and aid workers often do not seek out male victims. For the same reasons, male survivors rarely receive medical care or psychological support, she said.
"You're looking at a situation where no one's asking men if they were abused," she said.
Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of cases of women and girls being raped in CAR, but researcher Lewis Mudge said he had encountered only "a handful" of male victims.
More research would be needed to show whether rape of men and boys had been systemic, but it was possible, he said.
"In many ways we don't tend to think of sexual assault as being something that can affect males," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I hope that this report gets people to start thinking about that." (Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)