Dr Chris Dolan has been the Director of the Refugee Law Project, Makerere University, since 2006.
Interview conducted by George Edmondson (promotion 2020) (Medact)
Over the last two decades, the Refugee Law Project at Makarere University in Uganda has led the humanitarian work in the country to rehabilitate refugees, deportees and other victims of conflict, and to influence the debate on forced migration, transitional justice and sustainable peace. Specific aspects of this work have included initiatives to raise awareness of mental health issues suffered by victims, while current programmes involve education of refugees and civilians on the effects of the media in sustaining and resolving conflict (Refugee Law Project, 2020).
Dr Chris Dolan has served as the Director of the project since 2006. In this role, Dr Dolan leads its work to provide support to, and seek justice for, male survivors of sexual violence perpetrated in conflict contexts. With this broad objective, his efforts have been directed towards global advocacy, and demonstrating to policymakers the gaps in humanitarian support currently available for male victims.
He is under no illusion about the vital urgency of this work. In 2014, the Refugee Law Project’s programme for male victims was suspended by the Ugandan government for allegedly ‘promoting homosexuality’ (Dolan, 2016). He recalls how the suspension forcefully demonstrated the profound danger and social stigmatisation still faced by male victims in environments characterised by masculinism and heteronormativity that only allow space for female victims of sexual crimes.
In a bid to address these tangible social and political obstacles through practical interventions, Dolan has spent the last years fighting for international instruments that offer ‘inclusive’ characterisations of sexual violence and policies that address it. As part of this endeavour he has criticised documents such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Gender-Based Violence for ‘reifying’ women and girls as victims while casting men in a rigid role as ‘perpetrators’ (Dolan, 2016).
To conceptually underpin his work, Dolan advocates adopting a feminist approach that aims to jettison social and cultural associations of gender that sustain hierarchies offering heterosexual men power or propriety over women. Such an approach, Dolan claims, changes the way the dynamics between perpetrators and victims are conceived, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
In societies that privilege heterosexual males, Dolan writes, rape ‘strips the victim of his manhood’ and contributes to an ‘unmaking’ of his sense of self (Dolan, 2019: 203). Such a process reduces the likelihood of male victim-reporting or help-seeking because, in these heteropatriarchal contexts, both become tantamount to affirming this new ‘feminine’ or ‘subordinated’ identity. Yet, without the layering of gender identities upon these crimes, one can begin to mitigate the stigma, shame and loss of self-worth suffered so acutely by male victims.
Of course, there remain challenges in this endeavour. However, Dr Dolan continues to operate on the ground with victims, both at the Refugee Law Project and as an expert in Conflict-Related Sexual Violence for the Geneva-based NGO, Justice Rapid Response. Alongside his efforts in the field, his valuable academic contributions on the ways in which current gender discourses and policy interventions work to exclude male victims, and persons identifying as LGBTQ, are contributing to a redoubled focus among policymakers on the issue. As his Twitter tagline encourages those concerned with these serious issues: ‘let’s get gender discourses and interventions all inclusive’ (Dolan, 2020).