The lived realities of male survivors of wartime sexual violence in Uganda

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Across the globe, wartime sexual violence against men is committed much more frequently than is commonly assumed. Yet, the dynamics surrounding these crimes, and in particular male survivors’ experiences and perspectives themselves, remain remarkably overlooked. For instance, the UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in its latest Security Council Resolution 2467 from April 2019 “recognizes that men and boys are also targets of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings”, but fails to pay specific consideration for male survivors’ particular needs.

This is the broad context in which my book ‘Male Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence: Perspectives from Northern Uganda’ was written, and seeks to make a contribution, by illuminating the seldom-heard voices of male sexual violence survivors from Northern Uganda, bringing to light their complex experiences of gendered harms, agency, and justice-seeking.

The long stick cannot kill a snake

The research approach that I adopt in rendering these experiences visible, and to understand them is aptly reflected in an Acholi proverb. In ‘Things Fall Apart’, Chinua Achebe poetically writes that “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are swallowed” – something which certainly holds true for the strong oral culture and storytelling tradition in Acholiland, too. There is one particular proverb that I let myself be guided by in this book, which I learned about through Okot p’Bitek’s collection of Acholi proverbs and through Holly Porter’s research.

This particular proverb states that: ‘Odoo mabor be neko twol’ – which can loosely be translated as ‘a long stick cannot kill a snake’. And there is, indeed, some truth to it: If one tries to hit a snake with a long stick, one can only deliver weak blows and by the time one hits the snake, all the power of the stroke is gone. With a long stick, there is also the danger that the snake will curl around the end of the stick, latching on, and as the stick is raised to deliver another blow, the snake releases, falling on the head of the one who is holding the stick.

Instead, one has to get close to the snake, with a short but strong stick, and deliver a decisive blow, in order to kill it. According to both p’Bitek and Porter, the morale of this proverb is that: “If you are too far away from a problem, you cannot contribute to the solution.” Instead, you need to get close to the problem in order to deal with it and resolve it, using the metaphorical short stick. And this is exactly what I do in the book: Getting close to the diverse experiences and viewpoints of male survivors of sexual violence, to understand how their experiences can be dealt with, and to illuminate the diversity and complexity of survivors’ experiences – painting a more holistic picture of sexual violence against men.

Male Survivors’ Experiences

For this research, I collaborated with 46 male survivors of sexual violence from Northern Uganda. These men were sexually victimized by soldiers of the Ugandan government, the National Resistance Army (NRA), during the early stages of the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The crimes were geographically wide-spread, but they remain largely silenced and marginalized locally.

For all of the survivors I have worked with, these crimes carried immediate effects on their masculinities and their sense of gendered personhood. To begin with, in Northern Uganda’s highly hetero-normative and patriarchal culture, men’s vulnerabilities are seen as incompatible with dominant notions of manhood. If a man is violated, especially so sexually, he is no longer considered “a real man” in the hegemonic sense.

At the same time, the sexual violations resulted in numerous physical, psychological and physiological consequences, which in turn carried gendered ripple-effects which further impacted on survivors’ sense of manhood. For instance, several survivors told me about physical injuries in the aftermath of these violations, such as anal ruptures and prolapsed, waist and back pain as well as difficulties in passing urine or stool. These injuries often implied that survivors themselves could not carry out any manual or agricultural labour anymore and where thus unable to provide for their families. As described by one survivor, “I have many scars and injuries that I got as a result of the rape and this has weakened me and I cannot do any hard labour. I am not performing as a man.”

Moreover, the sexual violations are often seen as demonstrating survivors’ inabilities to protect themselves and by association their families, which however is a primary masculine responsibility. “If you do not have the power to protect either yourself or your wife and children, you are not a real man”, one survivor explained to me. In addition, the sexual violations also lead to numerous physiological effects, such as an inability to achieve or sustain an erection and to perform sexually. In a socio-cultural context where sexual virility is priced highly and in many ways required to perform masculinity, however, these effects further compromise male survivors’ sense of manhood. 

Importantly, though, my research also demonstrates that this impact of sexual violence on survivors’ masculinities is not static, and that survivors should not be defined by their gendered vulnerabilities only. Instead, in the current post-conflict context, survivors are finding creative ways to engage with and respond to these harms. For instance, the survivors I worked with have organized themselves in a survivors’ association, called the ‘Men of Courage’. In this group, survivors are getting together on a regular basis, engage in collective income-generating activities and communally share their stories and experiences.

These activities help survivors to get some recognition for their otherwise silenced experiences, and survivors understand that they are not alone. The activities also empower survivors socio-economically, for instance by enabling them to generate an income for themselves and their families. This, in turn, addresses and mitigates some of their prior experiences, and re-negotiates their sense of manhood and personhood. As one survivor described this, “before we came together, we had a lot of feelings of being less of a man. But since being in a group, these feelings have reduced.”

Hence, while sexual violence against men does impact on survivors’ masculine identities in different ways, survivors must not be defined by these experiences in static, ultimate and definite ways. Instead, survivors are finding creative ways to respond to and engage with their experiences, thereby exercising agency – demonstrating the complexities of survivors’ experiences beyond one universalizing and often essentializing storyline.


Philipp Schulz (@philipp_schulz1) is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. For the research underpinning this book, he was a Research Affiliate with the Refugee Law Project (RLP), School of Law, Makerere University in Uganda.

The book ‘Male Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence: Perspectives from Northern Uganda’ (Berkeley: University of California Press), is available Open Access. Download it here.

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