Investigating Rape in Wartime

An interview with Assistant Professor Dara Kay Cohen

April 5, 2013
by Sharon Wilke, Belfer Center Communications

Dara Kay Cohen is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a core faculty member of the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her current research examines variations in the use of sexual violence during recent conflicts and draws from fieldwork in Sierra Leone, East Timor, and El Salvador, where she interviewed more than 200 ex-combatants and noncombatants. Cohen received her PhD in political science from Stanford University and her AB from Brown University. An article on the causes of wartime rape is forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, and she recently co-authored a policy report for the United States Institute of Peace titled “Wartime Sexual Violence: Misconceptions, Implications, and Ways Forward.”  Here, we ask Dara Kay Cohen about her findings. 

Q: One of your primary areas of research is the practice of wartime rape, which has been getting increasing attention recently. Why is this issue in the spotlight now?

Wartime rape—and other forms of sexual violence—have received enormous attention in recent years. Since 2008, there have been four major Security Council Resolutions relating to wartime sexual violence. Currently, there are a number of prominent international campaigns, including one led by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, to prevent wartime sexual violence.

The issue is clearly experiencing a “policy moment,” although the problem of wartime rape is an old one, and scholars and human rights advocates have been researching this issue for years. The issue is in the spotlight now because of the culmination of combined efforts of activists, practitioners, and researchers, and an increased interest more generally in issues affecting women. The research community is also much better at detecting and reporting incidents of sexual violence than in the past, so we know more details about wartime violence than we used to—and increasingly, in real time.

Q: Is rape occurring more often in recent wars?

The honest answer is that we simply do not know. The data I’ve collected on rape during all recent civil wars show that reports of wartime rape over the last three decades have increased in both incidence and severity; that is, reports have become more numerous, and describe rape in increasingly dire terms. Some scholars have argued that these reports accurately reflect the underlying incidence, while others maintain that we are better at measuring and collecting reports of rape than we were in the past. The authors of the 2012 Human Security Report argued that because there are fewer wars than in the past, and these wars are less lethal, then it is likely that wartime rape has actually declined in recent years.

Q: You have written that while there is a belief that rape takes place in every conflict, this is not the case. Why are there more rapes in some conflicts than others?

There is enormous variation in rape during wartime, both across and within conflicts. My research examines why some armed groups perpetrate rape on a massive scale but other armed groups do not—even within the context of the same war. Wartime rape is a phenomenon for which there are numerous conventional wisdoms about its causes; e.g.that rape is more likely during ethnic wars or more likely in countries with especially pronounced gender inequality. But I find that many of the common arguments are incomplete or not supported by evidence. For example, I’ve found no correlation between ethnic war and rape. Additionally, given a civil war has already started, variation in gender inequality does not explain variation in wartime rape.

So what does cause rape in wartime? The answer lies in the armed groups themselves. Drawing on both a cross-national dataset and fieldwork in three post-conflict countries, I find evidence that the recruitment mechanism an armed group uses can predict the occurrence of wartime rape. Specifically, state and non-state armed groups that recruit by force—through abduction or press ganging— use rape to create unit cohesion. This argument helps resolve important puzzles about the nature of rape during wartime, including why so much of the rape that occurs in wartime is gang rape, when gang rape is relatively rare in peacetime. I argue that the increase in gang rape is because rape is serving an important purpose for the armed group: namely, to increase social ties in groups where the fighters have been forcibly kidnapped, and have no foundation on which to base mutual trust or esteem.

Q: Why do people rape in war situations when they wouldn’t in peacetime?

A common story about wartime rape is that conflict brings with it a chaos that allows perpetrators an opportunity to rape that wouldn’t be possible during peacetime. But most people—even during war—do not rape, despite ample opportunity. So any explanation of wartime rape has to move beyond a simple opportunity argument. Criminological researchers have found that perpetrators of gang rape are fundamentally different from those who perpetrate rape alone—they are less pathological, and more similar to those who perpetrate other forms of group violence. This sheds light on how ordinary people in the context of wartime can succumb to the pressure to perpetrate group violence, and especially forms of violence they might never commit alone. A surprising illustration of this logic is the participation of women in acts of wartime rape. When women are forcibly recruited to serve as fighters alongside men, they may also participate in acts of gang rape with their male peers. I interviewed female perpetrators of rape in Sierra Leone, but similar acts have been documented in Rwanda, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Assistant Professor Dara Kay Cohen

Assistant Professor Dara Kay Cohen

"There is enormous variation in rape during wartime, both across and within conflicts. My research examines why some armed groups perpetrate rape on a massive scale but other armed groups do not—even within the context of the same war."


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