Young boys and men are being sexually tortured in Syria while humanitarian groups fail to acknowledge the problem, according to new research by an international advocacy group.

“Torture, including sexualised torture, has been used against thousands of people in detention including men and boys as young as 11 years old, at a level that amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” says the report by All Survivors Project.

Researchers spoke to 66 “informants” on the ground in Syria and Turkey, where millions of Syrian refugees have fled. They heard that a “lack of acknowledgement that sexual violence can affect men and boys as well as women and girls” was hampering efforts to support male victims.

The anonymous informants on the ground – largely made up of human rights and health workers, as well as LGBTI activists and academic researchers – say that while sexual assault is prevalent in government jails, it’s also common out in the community.

“Sometimes government [security forces] enter a house and start to rape the father in front of the family to… harm him mentally,” said a mental health worker. “When I was in Syria the daughters, when they come to the centre, they talked about their father being raped in front of them.”

The report anticipates questions on how men in conservative societies come to engage openly in sexual acts with other men.

“They consider as homosexual the person who has been penetrated and not the person who penetrates, [so] they can use [rape] as a weapon,” says an NGO programme manager quoted in the report. “If you are a soldier and you [commit] rape, your manhood is not debated. It is the other [the victim] who is considered a homosexual.”

Often, male on male rape is about “torturing, humiliating, conquering”, said Charu Lata Hogg, head of All Survivors Project, at the launch of the report in London on September 6. While acknowledging rape of any kind can be about such things and that females are far more affected by sexual violence, Lata Hogg said, in a warzone, there are particular phycological differences at play when men rather than women are sexually abused.

“Compassion is not finite,” said Lata Hogg, calling on humanitarian and human rights groups to start sharing more information about the sexual abuse of boys and men, and to begin offering more services that specifically consider the needs of male victims.

“Everybody knows it’s a reality of the Syrian conflict but we close our eyes to it,” she says.

The report said it’s not possible at this stage to put a precise figure on the number of men and boys who have been subjected to sexual violence since the start of the war.

Stigma and the lack of information prevents accurate reporting of the problem.

The Syrian war has caused six million people to be internally displaced since fighting began in 2011. More than five million people have fled the country, a majority of which are now in Turkey.

Featured image: front cover of All Survivors Project report on male violence in Syria