Dara Kay Cohen on War and Sexual Violence

by Molly Lanzarotta, interviewed on July 12, 2013

Preventing rape and other forms of sexual violence during war is an issue that has gained increasing attention around the world in recent decades. But misconceptions about sexual violence – both in conflict zones and in broader contexts – makes developing public policies and effective prevention strategies difficult. Dara Kay Cohen, assistant professor of public policy, examines the dynamics of rape during civil conflict.

Q. Sexual violence during war is not a new problem. In fact, rape is often seen as an inevitable aspect of wars. Why is sexual violence during conflict receiving attention now?

Cohen:I think there are several reasons why. First, there have been years of efforts by activists and advocates who care about this issue to draw attention to rape and other forms of sexual violence in wartime. These efforts have really come to a head more recently in part because of the media attention that’s been paid to what’s happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a conflict in which there is a great deal of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Secondly, there has been remarkable policy movement in this realm. For example, the United Nations has recently passed a number of Security Council resolutions that all focus on rape and other forms of sexual violence in wartime. These resolutions include a recognition of the problem as something that’s under the purview of the Security Council, as well as the appointment of a Special Representative to the Secretary General whose sole job is to focus on these issues. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, along with Angelina Jolie, has recently spearheaded a major new policy initiative aimed at ending sexual violence in wartime. So there’s been a confluence of activism, advocacy, and a very widespread recognition by the policy community at large that this is an important issue –an important global issue that organizations like the United Nations and the G8 should be working on.

Q. What about the question of misconceptions? The idea that sexual violence in war is inevitable – is it? Are there other common misconceptions about this type of violence?

Cohen:There are a number of misconceptions about rape and other forms of sexual violence during wartime. First, as you mentioned, there’s a misconception that rape is inevitable, that it’s ubiquitous, that it happens in every conflict, and that every type of armed group may commit acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence. As we begin to gather more data, we now know that’s not true. In fact, there’s remarkable variation in rape and sexual violence across countries, across conflicts, and, most interestingly, across armed groups even within the same conflict. Even in conflicts that are experience mass reports of rape– places like Sierra Leone, for example, which is one of the countries where I did my fieldwork – there were some armed groups that committed rape and other armed groups that were very rarely reported to have committed rapes. The fact of variation in and of itself is an important corrective to the misconceptions that rape is ubiquitous or inevitable in wartime.

Other common misconceptions include that women are the only victims of rape in the context of war. There’s increasing evidence that men are also victimized, perhaps also in large numbers. There have been some recent surveys, for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that uncovered a large number of male victims of sexual violence. And more recently, in the U.S. there have been increasing awareness of male victims of sexual assault within the U.S. military.

On the flip side, perpetrators of sexual violence can also include women. One of the more surprising findings from my fieldwork in Sierra Leone was that the rebel group that committed the vast majority of rape and sexual violence in that conflict was also the rebel group that had the greatest number of female fighters. I interviewed ex-combatants who described women’s participation in acts of gang rape. According to one survey, about 25% of the reported gang rape in Sierra Leone was committed by groups of combatants that included mixed-sex perpetrators — which is to say that there were women present as perpetrators in those acts of gang rape.

Q. Why is sexual violence against civilians seen more in some conflicts than in others?

Cohen:This is a really difficult question and the truth is, we don’t yet have clear answers. There are a number of conventional wisdoms about why we see this variation. For example, some scholars have argued that ethnic wars are more likely to feature rape. Other scholars have argued that rape is more common in the context of genocidal conflicts, and that rape itself can be a form of genocide. Still others argue that gender inequality may help to predict where wartime rape is more likely. In a new article, I test a number of these conventional wisdoms, and I find that there is little evidence to support them.

In my research, I explore the differences between armed groups as a way of explaining why some armed groups commit rape and some do not. What I find is that one of the key variables is how armed groups recruit their fighters. I have conducted both quantitative research, based on new cross-national data I collected on rape in all recent civil wars, and qualitative research, based on interviews with ex-combatants in three post-conflict countries: Sierra Leone, El Salvador and Timor-Leste. I argue that armed groups that recruit their fighters randomly through abduction or press-ganging are groups that suffer from very poor internal social cohesion. These groups are more likely to commit rape because rape can serve as a way of creating social bonds between perpetrators, between members of armed groups.

This argument helps resolve one of the more persistent puzzles of wartime rape: why so much of the reported rape during wartime is gang rape, when, in peacetime contexts, gang rape is actually quite rare. Gang rape is, in large part, the result of social processes in some types of armed groups.

Q. In 2008, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that formally recognized sexual violence as a tactic of war. U.S. policymakers have also attempted to develop strategies to prevent sexual violence in conflict zones. Can public policy have an impact on this problem?

Cohen:There have been a number of policies aimed at mitigating the problem of sexual violence in wartime. One of my concerns, however, is that there is an increasing focus on prosecution, and on bringing perpetrators to justice. This may be a very important goal, but it is a costly policy option—both in terms of time and money—and there are still significant open questions about whether and how prosecutions work to mitigate sexual violence. For example, it is not at all clear that prosecuting perpetrators of wartime rape serves as a deterrent for future perpetrators of the same crime. In fact, there is reason to think that prosecution cannot serve as an effective deterrent because the ability to prosecute individuals is so limited, especially in cases of mass rape where there are thousands of victims and thousands of perpetrators. I’m not actually sure that prosecution serves as a deterrent. It may have other positive benefits. It may bring victims a sense of justice and that may be also an important public policy goal but in terms of deterring future acts of rape, I think it’s very unclear if prosecution is the way to go.

More promising is for policymakers to talk to groups of victims and to try to understand what it is that victims and survivors of rape and sexual violence actually need and actually want. Based on my fieldwork experience, I would say it’s very unlikely that victims would say that their top priority was prosecution or justice. In fact, in many of the places where I did fieldwork, there was an immense pressure, even a social need, to not prosecute, to move on, to forgive and so often what survivors and victim groups were advocating for were things that were much more basic – things like psycho-social services or medical care to deal with the aftermath of their attacks, not so much focus on prosecution.

Q. An issue that’s been getting more exposure recently is the level of sexual violence within the U.S. armed forces. Does your research on sexual violence during civil war shed any light on sexual violence against fellow soldiers in the U.S. military?

Cohen:One of the aspects I've been heartened to see in some of the recent coverage of sexual assaults within the U.S. military is that there is an increasing recognition of the fact of male victims. In fact, the evidence suggests that even though women are more likely to be assaulted, there are actually more male victims of sexual assault than there are female victims.

This fact, in some sense, has shifted part of the national conversation away from rape and sexual assault being perceived as a marginalized women's issue to instead being seen as a broader issue of violence, power and dominance. Of course, this is a perspective that feminist scholars and advocates have been arguing for years. This shift in the discourse reflects a new understanding of what rape and sexual assault actually mean, and hopefully will mark a new era of responding to the problem in more effective ways.

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