By Anna Pujol-Mazzini
LONDON, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sexual violence against men in conflict-torn countries from Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo is an "invisible" crime, with victims reluctant to speak out for fear of being ostracised and mocked, researchers said.
The Refugee Law Project, based at Uganda's Makerere University, has identified 25 countries, including Libya and Central African Republic, where sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war against male civilians.
Yet male victims have largely been neglected by aid agencies, who focus mainly on providing support to female victims of violence in conflict, the experts said.
"There is widespread ignorance about the reality of sexual violence against men in conflicts," said Chris Dolan, director of the Refugee Law Project, which has carried out research into the issue and interviewed male survivors.
Researchers said male survivors, like female victims, often suffered nightmares, depression and suicidal thoughts in the aftermath of an assault, which can range from anal rape to castration, and being forced to rape others.
One of the biggest obstacles to addressing the problem is a lack of comprehensive data on the issue, experts say.
Many male victims prefer to suffer in silence than risk being stigmatised for speaking out, said Meg Davis, who provides aid agencies with training on how to deal with sexual violence in conflict.
In some cultures, there is a belief that a man who is raped becomes a woman, and that only gay men are victims of rape.
"In some countries where homosexuality is illegal, you can be arrested for reporting," Davis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal, anti-gay sentiment has led to survivors of sexual assault being arrested after they tried to report the crimes committed against them.
Dolan said another reason why the problem has been underreported is the lack of help for those who do speak out.
"If there is no tangible help available, then the risks of disclosure outweigh the possible benefits," Dolan said, ahead of a discussion in Geneva later on Thursday on how aid agencies can reach male victims of sexual violence in conflict.
Men and boys were explicitly recognised as victims of sexual violence in conflicts for the first time in a U.N. Security Council resolution in 2013.
However, 62 countries - representing almost two-thirds of the world's population - still recognise only female victims of rape, the Refugee Law Project says.
(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)