by Alastair Hilton, TdH Netherlands Technical Advisor - Asia
Next month I will travel to Christchurch, New Zealand, on behalf of Terre des Hommes Netherlands, to attend the 3rd South- South Institute on Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys (SSI), a unique gathering of survivors, practitioners, activists and researchers from around the globe. Originally conceived in April 2013 in Kampala, Uganda, in response to the silence surrounding the issue of sexual violence against males in conflict, the 2nd SSI took place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and now heads further south to the land of the ‘long white cloud’ from 6th- 10th November. Those five days will include exchanges, presentations and workshops from those gathered - all keen to share, learn, collaborate and improve responses for male survivors of abuse and exploitation everywhere. An event such as this has never taken place in New Zealand before, and is without doubt truly historic.
Terre des Hommes Netherlands is an Associate Sponsor of the SSI, which is highly significant, signalling the importance of this long neglected issue to partners in the international development community. Terre des Hommes was originally inspired by Antoine de Saint Exupéry - the progressive French writer - who piloted a mail plane that he flew across Africa in the Second World War. Before his famous book Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), he wrote Terre des Hommes (Translated as ‘Earth of Mankind’, published in 1939). In that book, he called upon ‘the people of the earth’ to take their responsibilities seriously and to show solidarity. Almost eight decades later, TdH Netherlands is clearly and decisively responding to that call.
My own journey to Christchurch started perhaps more than four decades ago, on a fine Summer’s day in 1971. I was just seven years old, walking along a country road, within sight of my home and without a care in the world. And then I met a stranger who lured me into his car. I was later abandoned some distance away - abused, traumatised, numb, confused and literally paralysed by fear and a shame that was to cast a dark shadow, rendering me silent for fifteen years. Eventually I gathered myself, and ran in the direction of home, tears streaming down my face. The tears stopped as I reached the garden gate, but I did not know how to begin to explain what had happened. So I didn’t. Like many boys, further attempts were also made to abuse me throughout my teenage years by family friends, acquaintances, and strangers - both male and female. In the absence of support and bound up in the suffocating expectations of masculinity, boys learn to remain silent and more often than not, we blame ourselves, doing everything and anything we can to hide the reality of what happened, assuming that we are the only one.
Attempts to disclose were and still are, often met with disbelief, suspicion, ridicule and blame. The lack of discourse around the abuse of males ensures that in most countries, few if any services exist to meet victims and survivors needs. Globally, only four nations systematically collect data on sexual violence against boys and men. What research does exist, reveals that one in four boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18 years, and in some settings the prevalence rates are even higher. Studies also indicate that while males constitute one third of all victims of sexual violence globally, just one percent of resources are targeted at male victims and survivors. No wonder then, that so few men and boys disclose? Even if they wish to do so, the invisibility of the issue and lack of support are formidable barriers. Many, if not most abused and exploited boys and men simply have nothing to gain from speaking out.
In my own work over the last two decades I have been fortunate to be involved in research, development and establishing services for boys and men in the UK and Cambodia - and also supported the work of others in many settings. What I know to be true, is that when society is prepared to listen and provides safe spaces and opportunities, men and boys will come forward in huge numbers to seek the help they need. As a result of my work I have had the privilege to meet many survivors who have harnessed their courage, spoken their truth and began their own journey to recovery. One such man, who I will never forget for the rest of my life, called the helpline I established, along with 13 other volunteers in my home city of Leicester, England, back in 1997. When we met a few days later, a gentle, softly spoken and frail man of 72 years, gripping two walking sticks greeted me at the door. He originally hailed from Asia and shared that he had been regularly sexually abused and exploited by his mother and others, for a period of two years from the age of ten. Apart from his wife, he had never shared his painful story with anyone else in 60 years. Imagine that for a moment if you can ... Two generations of silence ... Six decades of searing and unrelenting shame.
I listened, and over time he shared that while he had married and had children, he often felt isolated and alone, finding it hard to get close to those he cared for most, feeling undeserving of their love. He struggled to settle in jobs as he considered that he was never good enough - ever the perfectionist. Socially he would play the role of ‘entertainer’, always telling jokes and making others laugh - but secretly fearing the consequences if they knew the truth of his shameful past. As men and boys, the formidable shields we create to hide the reality of our lives, manifest in many forms.
Whatever country you live in as you read this, you will also know men and boys who have experienced abuse and exploitation, although you may not know it. Many will have remained silent because it seems their only option, due to fear of the consequences of others finding out, simply not knowing what words to use, or where and how to begin. Silence may feel like their only safe option. But the times are thankfully changing and awareness is growing, often helped by sympathetic media coverage related to abuse scandals such as those which have enveloped the Catholic church, and British football clubs last year. Even more recently, the allegations of abuse perpetrated by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, has also resulted in the trending of the words #Metoo across social media, with men also sharing their experiences alongside those of women.
In some countries more boys and men are disclosing and asking for help now, than at any other time in history. As individuals and organisations, we need to be prepared for that.
If a male friend or colleague tells you he was abused, the best thing you can do is listen, believe and keep listening. Don’t judge or push him to do anything he does not want to do. It may be helpful to share information about what support is available in your area if it exists. Providing choices can be a simple but invaluable first step towards recovery. In many countries there are no services at all, but advances in technology now enable us to access helpful information from around the globe, such as the highly regarded ‘Living Well’ project for men, based in Brisbane, Australia. https://www.livingwell.org.au/ There is no doubt that the effects of abuse and exploitation have the potential to turn a person’s life completely upside down, causing long term physical and psychological problems. But when supported to establish safety and with the right support, survivors demonstrate immense creativity, resilience and limitless potential. Preventing the abuse of children and ensuring that appropriate, male sensitive services are in place, remains perhaps one of our greatest challenges?
In spite of recent progress, we should not be at all complacent, as there is much work to do. International development organisations such as Terre des Hommes Netherlands and their partners across East Africa, Asia and Europe are leading the way through research and the development of existing practice. It is refreshing to know that in many of the countries in which TdH operates, recognition and momentum is increasing. Research and training for service providers is planned for 2018, more conversations are taking place, more people are listening. Commitment and recognition of the need for change is growing.
I feel immensely privileged to be able to represent TdH at the South- South Institute and would like to thank my colleagues for supporting this endeavour. My visit will include facilitating a workshop, sharing information about the situation for boys in Asia and East Africa, our current work (including that related to online sexual exploitation) and future plans. The SSI also provides a great opportunity to learn and gain support and inspiration from those gathered. I look forward to a world where all children are protected and all survivors can easily access the support and services they so richly deserve. There is no doubt in my mind that the SSI, with the support of Terre des Hommes makes that possibility much more realistic. The message to all victims and survivors is clear - ‘you are not alone’.