Sexual violence as a continuum affecting both women and men

The Syrian Commission of Inquiry documents sexual violence as a continuum which is used as an instrument of war, both against the bodies of women as well as men.[1]  Traditionally sexual violence has been seen as an issue which affects only women. While women suffer disproportionately from sexual violence, emerging documentation and analysis shows that men too are victims of sexual violence. The use of sexual violence against men is often a hidden crime because of the additional shame and stigma attached to sexual violence suffered by men. The documentation of the Commission of Inquiry has visibilized this aspect of sexual violence against men, used during armed conflict in its first, third, fifth, seventh, tenth and latest Report.

The Commission does not separate out sexual violence against men from sexual violence against women but rather sees the violence as a part of a continuum, inflicted to exercise power and destroy the autonomy of those the regime considers rebels and subversives be they men or women.

As the first report of the Commission noted

“Several testimonies reported the practice of sexual torture used on male detainees. Men were routinely made to undress and remain naked. Several former detainees testified to reported beatings of genitals, forced oral sex, electroshocks and cigarette burns to the anus in detention facilities… Several of the detainees were repeatedly threatened that they would be raped in front of their family and that their wives and daughters would also be raped”. [2]

The fifth Report of the Commission notes

“In the case of pro-government forces, sexual violence was committed during house searches, at checkpoints and in detention centres, often as part of interrogations by intelligence services. One woman detained in Latakia described how she was threatened with gang rape during her interrogation. She also described other detainees being stripped naked while subjected to electric shocks. In Branch 285, the rape and sexual abuse of male detainees by their interrogators was reported. There were no indications of action taken by senior commanders to investigate, prevent or punish acts of sexual violence”.[3]

The Seventh report of the Commission notes

“Sexual torture, including the tying of genitals, has been systematically perpetrated against men and boys in custody in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. In November 2012, a man was raped in Al Khatib security branch, Damascus. In January 2013, at the Homs Security Branch, security agents beat and electrocuted the genitals of a 17-year-old boy and raped him while others watched… Men were tortured and raped on the grounds of their sexual orientation at government checkpoints in Damascus. In 2011, six homosexual men were beaten viciously with electric cables by security agents and threatened with rape. In October 2012, a man was stopped by security because his partner’s brother was a member of the FSA. The man was taken to a rural area, where cigarettes were stubbed on his body and he was gang raped”. [4]

The latest report of the Commission in September 2016 again reiterates the reality of sexual violence against men

“Male detainees are frequently subjected to sexual violence. Many stated that cellmates had been raped with objects and received electric shocks to their genitals. A man, held in an Air Force Intelligence branch in Hama in 2013, stated that cellmates had been raped with knives and other implements, which caused physical injuries. Another detainee, held in Dayr az-Zawr from mid-2011 to the spring of 2012, was stripped naked and hung by his wrists from the ceiling in a room with a female detainee, who was similarly naked and hung from her wrists. “We stood naked and humiliated in front of each other,” he said”.[5]

International law has only belatedly begun to recognise the fact that sexual violence  is an integral aspect of the three international crimes: crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The jurisprudential breakthroughs were achieved in the decisions of the International Criminal Tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

Key to this belated acknowledgement of sexual violence, has been the seminal Akayasu judgment, which came to the conclusion that the rape of Tutsi women  by Hutu militia was perpetrated with the specific intent to  destroy the Tutsi community and hence came within the definition of genocide.

“These rapes resulted in physical and psychological destruction of Tutsi women, their families and their communities. Sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction, specifically targeting Tutsi women and specifically contributing to their destruction and to the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole… Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group – destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself”. [6]

The jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) has shed light on the sexual violence committed against men.  In Prosecutor v. Cesic[7], the defendant, a member of the Bosnian Serb police was convicted of rape as a crime against humanity for forcing two brothers to perform sexual acts on each other in the Luka detention camp. In Prosecutor v Simic[8] the court found Simic and Todorovic guilty of committing sexual assaults on male detainees in the same detention center. In Prosecutor v Tadic[9], Dusko Tadic was found guilty of sexual mutilation of a male detainee.

The reason sexual violence inflicted on men and women has to be viewed as a continuum is because the rationale for the infliction of this almost unthinkable is to ‘exert power and dominance over the victim and potentially the victims community’.[10] It is also exercised for purposes of ‘domination, degradation or destruction of a person’s autonomy’. [11]

If one sees sexual violence through this lens, then the act itself is ‘not limited to physical invasion of the human body and includes actions directed at a persons sexual and reproductive health or identity such as sexual harassment, forced incest, castration, enforced sterilization, sexual mutilation, enforced nudity, enforced masturbation, genital violence including beating of the genitals and electric shocks to the genital area and other forms of sexual humiliation.’[12]

What the developing international jurisprudence is gesturing towards is understanding rape as a crime of violence and not a crime of passion and hence having a conceptual linkage to the other sexual crimes which are perpetrated during armed conflict. If the reason for sexual violence is to exercise domination even though the impact of sexual violence on men and women will be different, the purposes for which it is employed are the same.

As such, what the facts presented by the Commission of Inquiry urge us to do is to take sexual violence committed on both men and women with the same seriousness. In a sense, the Rome statute understands this impulse as rape, which is one of the acts under crimes against humanity, is gender neutral. Some of the acts of sexual violence perpetrated may come under the heading of torture, which is also a gender neutral crime. Hence there is a legal basis to recognise the sexual crimes committed against both women and men.[13]

However, the obstacles to prosecuting sexual crimes committed against men are likely to be quite large due to a lack of social recognition of the nature of these crimes. It is in this context that one hopes that the documentation of the Commission of Inquiry will pave the way for a more ‘general recognition that men can also be victims of gender based crimes that will lead the way for prosecutors to investigate allegations of such occurrences and judges to develop definitions and constitutive elements of gender based crimes that leave room for male victims.’[14]

In the time going forward, as the Syrian civil war inches towards a ceasefire, the question of accountability will become increasingly important. When accountability is sought to be fixed for grave crimes, thanks to the documentation of the Commission of Inquiry, the sexual violence can be seen as a continuum affecting both women and girls as well as men and boys.


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[1] It should also be noted that the focus on ‘men’ and ‘women’ has the unfortunate effect of invisibilising forms of gender expression that may not fit the rigid categories of male and female. This is a direct result of the definition in Article 7(3) of the Rome Statute which clearly states that ‘For the purpose of this Statute, it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term ‘gender’ does not indicate any meaning different from the above.’


[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.


[6] Prosecutor v.  Jean Paul Akayesu, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, (para 732),

[7] Case No.: IT-95-10/1-S ,

[8] Case no.:IT-95-9,


[10] Dustin Lewis, Unrecognised victims: Sexual violence against men in conflict settings under international law,  27  Wisc. L. J (2009) 1-49.

[11] Solange Mouthan , Sexual Violence Against Men and international law: Criminalising the unmentionable,  Int. Cr. L. Rev 13(2013) 665-697.

[12] Ibid.

[13] It may not be possible to think of gender outside the binary of male and female due to  Art 7 (3) of the Rome Statute  which notes:

 For the purpose of this Statute, it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term ‘gender’ does not indicate any meaning different from the above.

[14] Solange Mouthan , op. cit.