Yousef, a 28-year-old gay man, was raped by Syrian intelligence agents who had detained him for participating in protests during the conflict in Syria. He fled to Lebanon, but found only limited services to help him deal with the traumatic aftermath. By the time I interviewed him, he was resettled in the Netherlands. Geographically speaking, he was away from all the violence, but it still haunted him. “I look behind me when I am walking,” he told me. “I still wake up at night. It [the trauma] is not over.”
Yousef is one of dozens of sexual violence survivors from Syria whom I interviewed for Human Rights Watch. I found that since the beginning of the Syrian conflict men and boys – in addition to women and girls – have been subjected to sexual violence, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, by both government agents and non-government actors.
Their accounts of the abuse of gay and bisexual men, trans women and non-binary people for their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity were gruesome. They described rape, genital violence, threat of rape, forced nudity and sexual harassment.
But sexual violence in Syria is only one part of the story. Many of the people I spoke to described a range of symptoms consistent with trauma that persisted long after the violence was over. Once they had fled to Lebanon, they found inadequate services to respond their needs. Because of the stigma and abuse, the resulting needs of survivors often stay in the shadows. But European donors who have helped provide these services should be aware of these needs and target some of their aid towards these services.
People we interviewed told us that trans and non-binary people had been harassed and sexually abused at checkpoints in Syria for being “soft”, a term used by the survivors to describe the perception that they are effeminate. Trans women said they could not present themselves as women in Syria and had dressed as men to protect themselves from violence. Some had experienced sexual violence during interrogations in Syrian detention centres and said that, if their sexual orientation or gender identity was exposed, the violence intensified. Some had been in the Syrian army and had been subjected to sexual violence there because of their sexuality or gender identity.
Yet, they struggled to find the help they needed even if they had escaped to Lebanon. In Lebanon, as in many other places, targeted support for male survivors of sexual violence is rare, in part due to a lack of funding for service providers to train their staff and develop tailored services for men. Male survivors may not feel comfortable using general services for survivors of sexual violence, which often serve primarily women and girls. In some cases, untrained service providers may shame or dismiss them, exacerbating their distress and fear of stigma.
International donors should urgently provide resources for tailored medical, mental health, and social support programmes in Lebanon for men and boys, trans women and non-binary survivors of sexual violence, without diverting funding from the already scarce services for women and girls. Humanitarian organisations in Lebanon should provide targeted medical services, including mental health support, to both male and female survivors of sexual violence, and ensure that staff are trained to meet their needs.
Donors can make a difference by incorporating male, trans women, and non-binary survivors explicitly into their aid packages. They can also support efforts to ensure accountability for sexual violence in Syria against all victims, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The impact of providing these services would not only help survivors rebuild their lives, but erase the blind spot that allows them to be left behind.
Yousef and another survivor I interviewed were resettled outside Lebanon, but the others I spoke to continue to live in Lebanon and still need help. Even for people like Yousef, who was attacked almost eight years ago, the effect of sexual violence continues to this very day.