Gay and bisexual men in Syria, along with transgender women, have been suffering horrific sexual violence in that nation during its multisided civil war, as documented in a new Human Rights Watch report.
“Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, men and boys and transgender women have been subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence by the Syrian government and non-state armed groups, including the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS),” says the report, “They Treated Us in Monstrous Ways”: Sexual Violence Against Men, Boys, and Transgender Women in the Syrian Conflict, released Wednesday. “Heterosexual men and boys are vulnerable to sexual violence in Syria, but men who are gay or bisexual — or perceived to be — and transgender women are particularly at risk.”
HRW interviewed 44 survivors, mostly gay and bi men and trans women, who had fled to Lebanon. They described horrendous abuse, such as being raped with objects, in addition to other forms of sexual violence and harassment.
Yousef, a 28-year-old gay man, was detained by Syrian intelligence agencies, not because he was gay but for other reasons. Once the agents found out he was gay, “all the aggression was multiplied by 10 I would say,” he told HRW. “They were happily doing it. They were of course raping us with sticks. They rape you just to see you suffering, shouting. To see you are humiliated. This is what they like to see. They had a stick inside my anus, and they started saying, ‘This is what you like, don’t you like it?’ It went up till my stomach.”
Naila, a 21-year-old transgender woman, said she was gang-raped in prison while a minor. “They brought the stick of a mop and they inserted it in our anus,” she said. “A strong bleeding started, and we were mutilated.”
“Gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and nonbinary people said they were targeted for sexual violence during Syria’s conflict for being perceived as ‘soft,’” Zeynep Pınar Erdem, fellow in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, said in a press release. “Men and boys — regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity — are vulnerable to sexual violence in Syria and often remain unseen and without the support all survivors of sexual violence urgently need.”
Some of the survivors had severe injuries, resulting in rectal bleeding or pain in the rectum and genitals, and some may have contracted sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. They also suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health consequences. But they were often reluctant to seek medical care or mental health services because of fear, stigma, and lack of trust in the health care system. And male survivors of sexual violence sometimes found that service providers belittled them, and that services were inadequate, at the very least.
While the United Nations and many humanitarian groups have condemned the rampant sexual violence and called for better services for survivors, more must be done, HRW officials said.
“Humanitarian organizations and service providers in Lebanon should provide targeted medical services, including mental health support, to both male and female survivors of sexual violence,” the group’s press release says. “They should train their staff including case managers, social workers, and frontline medical workers on the specific needs of men, boys, and transgender women.”
“Men and boys and trans women can experience deep shame, stigma, and silence due to sexual violence,” Erdem said in the release. “It is vital to challenge the social and cultural assumptions that they should be invulnerable. Services need to be funded, and tailored to support their access and care, without diverting funding from services for women and girls.”