Legacies and Lessons: Sexual violence against men and boys in Sri Lanka and Bosnia & Herzegovina

from University of California
Published on 09 May 2017

Eight years on from the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka, the country is grappling with the legacy of massive human rights abuses committed during the war. As it does so, sexual violence against men and boys has only recently been recognised as among the violations that took place.

However, the issue remains little understood and responses have so far been even less adequate than for other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict.

Sri Lanka is not unique in this regard, but nevertheless represents an important example of how and why sexual violence against men and boys is committed in conflict settings, and the impact it has. It also presents opportunities to break the old pattern of denial that has been typical in many other conflictaffected countries. In particular, commitments by the government of Sri Lanka to establish various judicial and non-judicial transitional justice mechanisms could, if honoured, create an opportunity for developing the specialised structures, strategies and capacities necessary to ensure that sexual violence against men and boys is appropriately addressed as part of broader transitional justice processes. The fact that sexual violence by state security forces in Sri Lanka against both males and females continues today, albeit at reduced levels, creates an added urgency to act.

Although this report focuses mainly on the 26-year-long conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and Tamil armed groups, principally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it also draws on experiences from the 1992-1995 armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) which was assessed at the time as having “taken sexual violence to new levels”. The response in BiH has been inadequate in many ways, ongoing efforts to provide redress for male and female survivors of sexual violence have delivered important lessons, both positive and negative, that are relevant to Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

In both Sri Lanka and BiH, lack of documentation has proved to be a first and fundamental stumbling block to responding appropriately to sexual violence against men and boys, which is attributable in part to widespread lack of understanding and awareness of the issue. In Sri Lanka, interviews conducted by All Survivors Project with lawyers, human rights defenders, medical professionals and others reveal significant confusion around the issue and a tendency to conflate sexual violence against men and boys with homosexuality. Consequently, even these frontline human rights defenders are ill-equipped to document or otherwise respond to the problem.

However, this confusion is rooted in much broader societal understandings and attitudes. Despite evidence suggesting that sexual abuse of boys is common in the context of sex tourism, schools, care homes, religious establishments and other similar settings in Sri Lanka, and that male-on-male sexual violence outside such settings is also not uncommon, the problem is buried under silence and denial.

But stigma and shame are far from being unique to Sri Lanka. Rigid masculinity norms and other forms of gender-stereotyping, while somewhat differently manifested, are also deeply entrenched in BiH and often cited as among the reasons that male survivors are unwilling to come forward.
Rather than accepting under-reporting as an inevitable, the challenges faced in both BiH and Sri Lanka speak to the need for the development of gender-sensitive understandings of stigma and for specific strategies to encourage and support survivors of male sexual violence to speak out and seek assistance.

The still relatively few cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys in Sri Lanka that have been documented in detail nevertheless point to patterns of rape and other brutal forms of abuse. While these differ in some notable respects from the types of sexual violence perpetrated against males during the war in BiH, men and boys in both contexts were subjected to rape, genital violence, enforced nudity and other forms of sexual abuse, and in neither case, were these isolated incidents.