Gang rape has been a vicious element of war since time immemorial. It is slowly starting to receive the attention it deserves by the international community, with campaigns to Stop Rape Now and Stop Rape in Conflict, particularly as its use in the killing fields of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has continued to shock the world.
But when and where has gang rape happened during civil wars? And why, even in the same war, do some factions commit rape while others don’t?
Those are the questions that Professor Dara Kay Cohen of the Harvard Kennedy School has sought to answer in her last years of research. She presented some of those findings at her WAPPP Seminar last week.
As rape has become a weapon of war in places as diverse as Rwanda, Bosnia, the DRC, most people have tried to explain it in three ways. First, that it is due to opportunism and greed: a collapse of norms and access to resources attracts violent people that will commit violent deeds with impunity. Second, that it is due to ethnic hatred: rape is part of humiliating or erasing the next generation of a people based on their race. And third, that it's a symptom of extreme gender inequality: that even in times of peace, women lack rights and opportunities, so rape is a byproduct when other norms break down.
However, Professor Kay Cohen argues that, in fact, gang rape may be a tool of combatant socialization during wartime. Using the cases of Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and East Timor---even analyzing situations where rape did not occur---she suggests that when armed groups recruit foot-soldiers by force, through random abduction or impressment, gang rape is used by the members of the combatant group to create unit cohesion. Because there is no basis for unity amongst the diverse, abducted soldiers, gang rape of the victim population creates a shared experience that builds a twisted form of solidarity. In fact, gang rape during civil conflicts is rarely ordered by commanders. But a “desire to fit in” compels even female abductees to participate in gang rape of their victims.
Though many have referred to rape as a “costless weapon” that evidently also increases unit cohesiveness, it often has multiple costs to the perpetrators---including the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and reduced battlefield effectiveness.
The difficulty for outside policy-makers trying to respond to or intervene in these horrendous situations is that wars with widespread rape tend to be more difficult to end, and have less durable episodes of peace. However, understanding that it is the composition of a warring faction that drives gang rape in war, can serve as a warning signal to outside observers that rape as a tool of war is imminent---hopefully prompting earlier intervention.