Monday, September 12, 2016

Rape During Civil War

The WAPPP weekly seminars are back with an extraordinary lineup of speakers. Our inaugural presenter for the 2016-2017 year was Professor Dara Kay Cohen, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Professor Cohen discussed her recently-released book Rape During Civil War and the importance of combatant socialization to understanding mass rape in wartime.
Dara Kay Cohen, WAPPP Faculty Affiliate; Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
While the level of policy discourse around issues of rape and sexual violence has increased dramatically in recent years, Professor Cohen notes that there are many open questions. Most research on wartime rape consists of case studies, so while a number of possible mechanisms have been identified (ranging from “men are evolutionarily prone to rape” to “ethnic wars create the necessary conditions for mass rape”), little systematic investigation has occurred. In her research, Professor Cohen examined contemporary civil wars from 1980-2012 and conducted fieldwork in Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and East Timor to better understand why, even within the same war, some armed groups commit wartime rape on a mass scale, while others never do. Understanding the root causes of wartime rape, she says, is critical to developing effective policy.

In particular, Professor Cohen focuses on three puzzles:

  • Why does wartime rape take the form of gang rape, when gang rape is a relatively rare form of peacetime violence? 
  • How do seemingly ordinary people, once forced into armed groups, can commit acts of brutal rape on a large scale? 
  • How do we account for female perpetrators, as has been documented in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the DRC?

Conventional Wisdom

The existing explanations for wartime rape fall into three main categories:

1. Opportunism/greed. This is the perhaps the most common conventional wisdom: state collapse and the disintegration of peacetime norms attracts violent types. These now-armed actors may have access to resources like drugs or diamonds and rely on external sources of funding. As such, they don’t need the support of the civilian population and are free to abuse noncombatants.

2. Ethnic hatred. In this formulation, rape is used as a signal to the opposing ethnicity or as a form of genocidal violence during ethnic conflicts and secessionist wars.

3. Gender inequality. This explanation is particularly prominent in contemporary policy discourse. In countries where women have fewer social, political, and economic rights, the theory goes, they will be at greater risk of mass rape during wartime.

Combatant Socialization and Sexualized Violence

By contrast, Professor Cohen advances a new explanation: combatant socialization. Armed groups that randomly recruit fighters by force must find some way to create a coherent army out of virtual strangers. Armed groups that coerce fighters into joining may be able to use existing social ties, but those that abduct new recruits by force need a different strategy. According to Professor Cohen, gang rape is a socialization practice by combatants who need to trust each other but have nothing to base their trust on – other than these displays of sexualized violence.

Sexualized violence acts as a means of sorting and organizing the group and creates bonds between strangers, increasing group cohesion. Similar patterns have been studied in armed groups, street gangs, and prisons. Gang rape, the literature says, raises the status of perpetrators in one another’s eyes. The desire to fit in with the rest of the group is a powerful motivator for group violence. This is particularly true in cases of forced abduction: recent abductees may turn to sexualized physical aggression to help regain their diminished sense of masculinity. For these perpetrators, the benefits of group cohesion (including social bonds, access to food, and protection) outweigh the costs of rape.

Cross-National Statistical Study

Using State Department data on major civil wars from 1980-2012, Professor Cohen examined the cross-national correlation between fighter recruitment mechanism and wartime rape, including variables for the conventional explanations of mass rape in wartime. She found strong support for the association between wartime rape and forced abduction of fighters. There was some support for the relationship between opportunism/greed and mass rape, indicating that state failure and contraband funding is associated with insurgent violence. Interestingly, the statistical analysis did not support a significant relationship between ethnic hatred or gender equality and wartime rape. Gender inequality was highly correlated with the onset of conflict, but this variation doesn’t help explain which conflicts will include mass rape.

Fieldwork and Interviews

On the qualitative side, Professor Cohen conducted interviews and focus groups with former fighters and noncombatants in three countries: Sierra Leone (high incidence of mass rape by insurgent perpetrators), East Timor (high incidence of mass rape by state perpetrators), and El Salvador (low to moderate levels of mass rape by state perpetrators). In these interviews, Professor Cohen sought to understand whether rape did indeed increase social cohesion among fighters.

According to her respondents, most rape perpetrated during war was gang rape. Respondents mentioned perpetrators of both sexes. In general, these rapes occurred in public or were observable by others – if it occurred behind closed doors, it wouldn’t further social cohesion. Most respondents mentioned social pressure to participate in gang rape rather than direct orders or threat of death.


In general, armed groups that abducted the most were also those that raped the most. According to interview evidence, gang rape did create social cohesion. There was strong social pressure to participate; new recruits who did not want to were mocked until they did so. In interviews, respondents reported that gang rape was something to laugh or joke about with other fighters. If a fighter opted to not participate, they were not forced to, but they would be teased. When fighters of both sexes were abducted, both sexes participated in gang rape, with female fighters generally perpetrating object rape. Significantly, rape was generally not ordered from the top down. Commanders took an ambivalent view of gang rape: the socialization component was a benefit, but rape could also be a distraction.

These findings also provide evidence for rejecting alternative arguments for wartime rape. Contrary to the opportunism/greed theory, gang rape was perpetrated not just by voluntary joiners (“bad apples” or violent types), but by abductees. The three conflicts for which Professor Cohen did fieldwork are non-ethnic wars, so ethnic hatred does not explain all of the variation in mass rape across conflicts. Finally, there was marked variation in level of rape across armed groups within the same war, despite occurring within the same patriarchal culture, which indicates that gender inequality cannot sufficiently explain variation in rape in wartime. Instead, random abduction of strangers into fighting forces—who then must create cohesive social bonds—appears to be the best predictor of variation in wartime rape.

Implications for Policy

Finally, Professor Cohen concluded, these findings have significant policy implications. High levels of wartime rape don’t necessarily imply that rape is a wartime strategy ordered by commanders for a military purpose. Rather than focusing on prosecuting commanders, as Professor Cohen argued in a New York Times op-ed, we should work to prevent rape during conflict. Abduction of fighters by armed groups may be able to serve as an early warning sign of wartime rape, allowing time for the international community to intervene.

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