By Onen David Ongwech (Published 10th July 2017)
I recently found my commitment to tackling conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) reinvigorated when I took an important trip to Bath College’s New Perspectives exhibition on June 20, 2017 to support a magnificent piece of art on display which illuminates the plight of male survivors of CRSV. This trip came ahead of the World Refugee Day, Uganda Solidarity Refugee Summit on Refugees, and UN Day Against Torture.
The art I found in Bath honors the resilience of asylum seekers and refugees following experiences of terror, brutality and oppression.
Alighting in the warm afternoon from the National Express coach, I was once again welcomed by the calm and beautiful landscape of Bath Spa, which I last visited 2 years ago. After three hours in the coach, and the excitement of leaving London’s constant bustle, I was ushered into a scenic extravaganza at Bath College, showcasing several artifacts of over 60 students. In particular, one project explored the plight of male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. For copyright concerns, and because it was a private viewing event that day, I am unfortunately not able to share any picture, yet.
This particular project on conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys that pulled me from London to Bath Spa was was keenly designed by Maria Dolan, an interesting young artist who volunteered with Refugee Law Project in 2015, and participated in the video “Men Can Be Raped Too”. Since then, and with the experience from interacting with refugee male survivors in Kampala, Maria has not forgotten the disturbing stories. Instead, she has chosen a creative initiative to raise awareness and amplify survivors’ voices, through collaborating with organizations, activists, survivors, survivor-led groups, practitioners, and academics.
The second edition of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict (see Chapter 17: Sexual Violence against Men and Boys) affirms that sexual violence against men and boys is committed in a number of conflict situations around the globe, and adds that there is a general lack of reporting and documentation because male survivors are overlooked, and hidden under the umbrella term ‘torture’ (see page 266-267). Maria Dolan’s piece, a carefully designed printed piece of approximately 2 square meters of fabric, illuminates the overwhelming challenges faced by male survivors of CRSV and uniquely accentuates the intervention challenges that humanitarian workers grapple with in supporting survivors, survivors’ personal experiences, and how their relationships with their families and communities can shift in the wake of the violence. In a very interesting way, Maria’s piece re-echoes the forms, settings, and consequences of CRSV against men and boys.
As a practitioner working on CRSV, I closely observed viewers’ engagements with the artifact, and I was enthralled by the range of physical and verbal interactions. With an average of 2-5 minutes viewing per person, it was astonishing to see viewers make rounds and then return with other people to view the work, and explaining to others what the project was about. I was intrigued by people’s interests and tried to eavesdrop into some conversations with the artist. While it wasn’t possible to follow through, I nonetheless observed facial expressions of some viewers as they enthusiastically engaged with the styled texts, design patterns, and educative words on the artifact.
After viewing all the exhibits, I was stunned to see young people’s creativity in using art as part of the college’s safeguarding programme to advocate against Female Genital Mutilation, Child abuse, CRSV, and other human rights issues. Irrespective of what you think about the millennials, I hold a strong view - not just informed by the exhibition - that there is much we can learn from young people, especially in this digital era. Besides the artist being just on her way to university, I was touched when I saw some children (age 8-18), asking jaw-dropping questions about conflict-related sexual violence, and the desire to understand what can done to support survivors as a result of viewing Maria Dolan’s work. As someone who, over the years, has tried to get young people involved in discussions on conflict-related sexual violence, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how even very young people engaged in discussion around this artwork!
The exhibition reaffirmed that there is no place too small to talk about CRSV. While survivors struggle for voice, acceptance, and inclusive services, and as humanitarian workers battle with push-backs associated with advocacy against male-directed sexual violence, such exhibitions offer a significant contribution, and new ways of engaging with and viewing the issue. When this project finally gets published later this year, I believe it will contribute towards changing perspectives on how CRSV is viewed by the wider community.
While I remain optimistic, I am also cognizant that the journey towards gender inclusivity, and access to justice for survivors of CRSV is still faced with complex hurdles due to attitudinal rigidity and legal lacunas in many countries. For male survivors, it was not until 2013 that UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 2106) explicitly recognized men and boys as survivors of sexual violence. Whereas this was an epoch-making development, drumming up support in the struggle against CRSV requires a collective and long-term approach and necessitates that we leave no one behind.
In pursuit for young people’s voices on sexual violence, it’s vital that we support and nurture their creativity. This digital era presents new opportunities, and we cannot afford to ignore young people’s creative contributions towards the inclusive and peaceful world that we all desire. I’m optimistic, more than ever, that this can be achieved and that, most importantly, the process will accelerate when we listen to and work with the younger generation as agents of transformation.
I thank you all.