Healing the trauma of raped men and their wives

Men tortured sexually during wartime suffer ongoing stigmatisation as well as sexual and emotional trauma. Uganda’s Men of Hope is helping not only victims but also their wives.

Judith Dosanyi had “one hundred questions about this issue”. But on that day in 2013, she put aside her doubt and walked down the aisle of the Full Gospel Church in the Kampala neighbourhood of Makerere, Uganda, to marry the man she loved.

Hers weren’t normal pre-wedding jitters, however. Many had tried to dissuade her from marrying him. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he was a survivor of conflict-related rape or tek gungu, “bend over” or “it’s hard to bend” in the northern Ugandan dialect, Acholi. 

People were saying, ‘How come you have accepted to get married to a man who went through sexual violence?’” Dosanyi says. “They were telling me I don’t need to get married to him. By then, I was having some fear. I was wondering, ‘Yes, I have faith that this man can get healed. But in case he doesn’t get healed, what will I be?’ So I was asking myself so many questions, showing that I have some fear in my heart. But later on I said, ‘I am engaged, let me go ahead. I love him, let me go ahead.’”

In 2014, Dosanyi gave birth to the couple’s first child. “The child was born normally, without any problems,” she says. “But now, when the child was three months old, the child passed away. Then I started to say, ‘Aha, now you see what I thought about. Maybe the sperms of this man were so weak because he went through sexual violence.’”

Dosanyi is in a small upstairs room of the Kampala office of the Refugee Law Project (RLP), a human rights organisation that offers a range of services assisting refugees and asylum seekers. It is from this office that RLP has, since 2014, been screening refugees (male and female) for experiences of sexual violence. Men of Hope, an association under the RLP, is focused particularly on helping to rehabilitate men who have been tortured and raped, and their wives. 

Wives’ plight overlooked

Chris Dolan, director of the RLP, says the effects of conflict-related sexual violence on the wives of survivors is an area largely overlooked and that “there are some big questions we need to ask when working with survivors of sexual violence.

“I think we grossly underestimate how [those around them] can be impacted. More work needs to be done in understanding what it means to the spouse of a survivor of sexual violence and the kinds of tensions, difficulties and insecurities that this creates. People will often go on about men who walk away from their wives when their wives have been raped. But it is actually often the same with women when their husbands have been raped. So the gender dynamic is not that different. 

“There are still huge gaps. Getting to understand that there are male victims is one step. Getting to understand the people around them who are affected by this is another step. The problem is that the whole field of sexual violence has been predicated on a very narrow focus on the immediate survivor of the violence. It has not really looked beyond that,” Dolan says, adding that roughly three-quarters of the men the organisation works with are married. 

The RLP’s 2017 report, Hidden Realities: Screening for Experiences of Violence amongst War-Affected South Sudanese Refugees in Northern Uganda, notes that “the results of screening more than 3 000 refugees [since 2014] from the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia [showed that] approximately two out of three women and one out of three men report experiences of sexual violence and suggest that experiences of sexual violence are one of the key factors driving the decision to flee”.

In May this year, the RLP held its fourth South-South Institute on Sexual Violence against Men and Boys in Conflict and Displacement. The institute emerged in 2013 from a collaboration between the RLP, New Zealand’s Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust and First Step Cambodia. Under the banner “Bridging the Sexual Violence: Torture Divide”, the conference aimed to “review the progress made in the past six years in raising international awareness and advocacy on conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys and to take stock of the relationship between torture and sexual violence”. 

Gloria Banga (not her real name) and her husband were raped and tortured; as a result, they are unable to conceive another child, which has resulted in their being shunned by their families.
Gloria Banga (not her real name) and her husband were raped and tortured; as a result, they are unable to conceive another child, which has resulted in their being shunned by their families.

Documented cases

Male Rape and Human Rights, a 2009 study by Lara Stemple, found the “lack of attention to sexual abuse of men during conflict … particularly troubling, given the widespread reach of the problem”. 

Stemple noted that cases have been documented throughout the world, including in Chile, Greece, Croatia, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union, the DRC and the former Yugoslavia.

“For example,” Stemple’s study found, “an astonishing 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in El Salvador in the 1980s reported at least one instance of sexual torture. In the wake of another conflict, 21% of Sri Lankan Tamil males receiving service at a torture treatment centre in London reported that they had experienced sexual abuse while in detention. The forms of abuse began with forced nudity, taunting and verbal sexual threats, creating an experience of degradation and humiliation. Ultimately, the abuse included various forms of genital mutilation and forced sex acts. Most of those abused had not reported the incidents to authorities, explaining that they were too ashamed.” 

Related article:

Godfrey Ogena is the project director of the Kampala office of the refugee organisation, Jesuit Refugee Services. Of the effects of conflict-related sexual violence on male survivors, he says: “When they cannot function sexually, they feel they are not man enough. And this has a very big psychological effect on the man. This may lead to a sense of hopelessness. Because in African societies, if you cannot have a wife or family, it affects the respect we get from the community.”

Ogena adds that “the stage of their relationship and whether they have children or not” influences many wives’ decision to stay married to, or leave, their husbands. “If, for example, they have had a number of children, then it may be challenging to look after children alone. So they may stay in the relationship because the risk of raising the children alone is there. But if they don’t have children and their partners cannot function sexually, in most cases they will leave,” he says. 

Uncharted waters

Ogena describes the situation for the wives of survivors as “like moving in uncharted waters”. He continues: “Maybe they have a sense of liberation in that they may get a [new] man with whom they can have children. But depending on the type of relationship they had [with their husband] before the sexual abuse, it can bring a sense of guilt. For example, if they had a wonderful relationship before, or everything was going well, they experience guilt for having abandoned the man. Like they betrayed somebody who had trust in them and with whom they built a life together. So it’s not very easy.”

It was largely because of her work as a nurse that Dosanyi decided to marry the man whose surname she now carries. “During my time as a nurse, I went to different sites where we used to see victims and give them treatment. And some of them were healed and they could perform very well sexually. So because of that background I had, I said, ‘Let me accept him. He will get proper treatment and maybe he will be better.’ That is how I accepted. With that belief.”

Maik Hakizimana* is a survivor of conflict-related sexual violence whose wife still finds it difficult to deal with what happened to him, particularly its aftereffects. 

“I cannot produce another child. That is a problem for my wife,” says the 37-year-old. “She is just complaining, ‘I need another baby.’ But there is no way. There is a weakness in performing sex with my dear,” he says.

It was in the Burundian city of Bujumbura in 2015 that the former high school teacher says “people came to my place”. 

Horrors of Burundi

Forcing their way into his home, he says, “they tied cloth around my face and tied my arms from behind. Then they took us to an unknown place. It was a house where people were tortured. Then I spent there, like, four days. Then they told me, ‘We want to show you how many people we have killed.’ Then, they showed me a big sack. A sack full of penises that they cut. That was how they were showing their boss how many people they have killed, because they would kill the people after removing their penises. They said, ‘Even you, you will suffer like this.’ 

“Then they brought a jerrycan full of water and tied it on my testicles, ordering me to walk, to move from one place to another. But I failed. Then they started raping me from behind. When they did this, my mom started crying and screaming. Then they hit her with the panga. They cut her neck. They were still raping me – one after the other – when they cut her neck. After cutting her neck, she died. It was then that they forced me to drink that blood, the blood of my mother. They forced me. After that, they raped me for two days.”

He adds, “When I start to think about those issues, my appetite [for intimacy] disappears. Or, if it happens [that my wife and I are intimate], sometimes I can even fail to make one round. Because when I am sleeping with her, those images come back in my mind. 

“It is affecting my marriage because we are quarrelling. Quarrelling all the time. She will say, ‘You are not a man. You are like me. Someone can see you as a man, but in bed you are very fake.’ It makes me feel very, very bad. Because before I was very, very okay. I used to enjoy her very well.”

Related article:

After the attack, Hakizimana fled to Uganda with his wife and two children. He now lives in the Nakivale refugee settlement in the country’s Isingiro District. 

“Where we live, they call us [other male survivors and I] homosexual,” he sighs. “But we are not homosexual. What happened to us … we were not willing to be part of it. We were not willing. When they call us homosexual, I just feel shame. I just want to isolate myself.”

The 2019 book New Critical Spaces in Transitional Justice, edited by Arnaud Kurze and Christopher K Lamont, includes a chapter by Philipp Schulz looking into male survivors of sexual violence in northern Uganda. 

“The physical and psychological implications of these crimes on the survivors are severe,” says Schulz. “The consequences include various forms of waist pain … physical problems of urinating and passing stool, as well as trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, social isolation and severe stigmatisation. Consequently … survivors are often unable to perform any physical labour, thereby failing to provide for their families and communities.” He adds that this, in turn, leads to “social stigmatisation”.

In 2011, in their home town of Bakuvu, in the eastern region of the DRC, Gloria Banga* and her husband were raped and tortured by “government people”. She was pregnant at the time but, she says, “the child died after six months because I was tortured when I was pregnant with her. I produced her. It was a very difficult job, but … I am now living. But for her, she died after six months. After that, I am not able to produce again. I don’t know why.”

Kampala in Uganda is the base for the Refugee Law Project and its offshoot organisation, Men of Hope, which works on rehabilitating male survivors of sexual violence and their wives.
Kampala in Uganda is the base for the Refugee Law Project and its offshoot organisation, Men of Hope, which works on rehabilitating male survivors of sexual violence and their wives.

Difficult to speak

Her husband, she adds, was raped on two separate occasions. “After the second time, when he came home, he didn’t tell me about the sexual violence. Because normally when they come back home, they only talk about torture. But I could see my husband was not okay. He was not okay at all. 

“Then I was asking him: ‘What is the problem? Because last time you were strong [sexually], but now you are not strong. What is the problem?’ He would beat me, he could be very tough. Then he was blaming me, telling me, ‘It is like you have some other husband. That is why you are seeing that I am not strong.’” 

Close to a decade after being raped and tortured, the couple – who have one son – is unable to have another child. “I don’t know if the problem is me … Or [if] the problem is him,” says Banga, 35. “If I am going to remain with one child, it is okay. But the challenge I’m facing is … my husband wants more children. 

Related article:

“Now, in Africa, when you don’t have children, they know that the problem is the lady. My husband’s family are saying, ‘She is not a woman. She’s not your wife. She’s the wife of many people.’ And that is the challenge I am facing. Even my family, they don’t consider him a man, because they know that he passed through sexual violence. They don’t like him and his family don’t like me. That is it now. We don’t know what…” says Banga, trailing off. 

The counselling the couple have been receiving through the RLP’s Men of Hope programme is helping them deal with the trauma of the violence they have suffered, as well as its effects on their union. “Before, I wanted to separate from my husband,” she says, “but at RLP they helped us and now we are together. With counselling, it is okay now.”

Dosanyi concurs. “Most of the wives I have seen have remained in the relationships with their husbands, specifically here in Kampala. Because of this group, Men of Hope, they have been receiving treatment. And now they have decided to remain with their husbands. And I can testify about my husband. My husband has received treatment several times. Now he has improved,” she says. 

Years after sticking to her guns, walking down the aisle and marrying the man she loves, Dosanyi says she has no regrets.

Touching her pregnant belly (“I’m eight months now”) and smiling down at her three-year-old daughter seated patiently next to her, she says of her decision: “I am so, so happy for that. Really. So, so happy.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.