Rethinking the Causes of Wartime Rape

While a Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, my new colleague Katherine Marino wrote the following article on the work of Dara K. Cohen, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The piece originally appeared in the Clayman’s online publication Gender News in October, 2011. The Clayman Institute has kindly extended permission to reprint it here.

When Eman al-Obeidy burst into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, desperately relating her tale of gang rape at the hands of Libyan soldiers as international news cameras rolled, the eyes of the world momentarily focused on the problem of sexual violence in wartime. Worldwide attention has grown considerably in recent years, from the United Nations’ outcry against mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the war in Darfur.  However, very little is known about why wartime rape occurs.

Perhaps the most common explanation for wartime rape, bolstered by the examples of Rwanda and Bosnia, is that it is a tool of ethnic cleansing. In other words, the objective of this kind of rape is to impregnate women from the targeted community and in so doing, “cleanse” the group by altering its ethnic makeup.  It is a tool of war designed to humiliate and psychologically terrorize members of the targeted group. Another prevailing reason is that it occurs due to women’s relative inequality as compared to men. The argument, made by many in the human rights advocacy world, is that in places where women are culturally devalued they are put at risk of being brutalized by men.

Moving beyond conventional wisdom about wartime rape

To better understand the causes of wartime rape, political scientist Dara Kay Cohen carried out a research project using two types of methodologies.  Her conclusions? Cohen calls these usual explanations for wartime rape “very powerful conventional wisdoms,” which do not explain most cases of rape in civil war.

First, Cohen conducted an in-depth examination of the civil war in Sierra Leone (1990-2002), in which widespread rape occurred even though the civil war was not an ethnic conflict.  By starting her research in a region without an ethnic conflict, Cohen could focus her research on understanding other explanations of wartime rape. Over the course of her fieldwork, Cohen took three trips there, conducting interviews with over 200 ex-combatants and noncombatants about their varied experiences with violence during the conflict.

Second, Cohen developed the first ever systematic and comprehensive dataset on wartime rape. The dataset, which utilizes information from the State Department Human Rights Country reports, found that of the 86 civil conflicts between 1980-2009, about two-thirds were reported to involve significant rape.  Surprisingly, her statistical analysis revealed that wartime rape is not more likely to occur in ethnic conflicts or in places with greater gender inequality.  Rather, she found a correlation between the choice of recruitment mechanism of an armed group and that group’s use of rape.

“Combat socialization” used to unite armed groups

From her interviews with ex-combatants in Sierra Leone, as well as similar interviews conducted in El Salvador and East Timor, Cohen argues that gang rape often serves as a means of socialization for members of armed groups who perpetrate it, what she calls “combatant socialization.”  The insurgencies and armies that have abducted or press-ganged their members into service are more likely to perpetrate widespread rape than those whose “members are recruited through more voluntary methods.”  She explained in an interview that gang rape “has…[a] benefit to the group unit under certain conditions.  If the people in the group don’t know each other, [and] have no basis on which to trust other, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that…rape, in particular…has an even stronger bonding function than [other forms of] violence.”  Gang rape, she explains in a recent paper, “enables armed groups with forcibly recruited fighters to create bonds of loyalty and esteem from these initial circumstances of fear and mistrust.”

One of Cohen’s most unexpected findings is that these bonds of socialization apply not only to male combatants, but also to female combatants.  On her second fieldwork trip to Sierra Leone, Cohen discovered that the rebel group which committed the most rape, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was also the group with the most women fighters.  She then interviewed female RUF fighters, a number of whom revealed that they were actively involved in gang rapes along with male combatants, holding victims down as well as utilizing bottles and other objects to perpetrate rape.  Others’ survey data confirmed that female combatant participation constituted a wider phenomenon, which, as Cohen explains, challenges the “conventional wisdom…that if you have more women in the armed group, there should be less rape.”

Future research to show that interventions against rape are not “one size fits all”

Cohen’s interest in studying violence against women dates back to her years as an undergraduate at Brown University, when she volunteered for several years at a rape crisis center, and interned at the Rhode Island’s attorney general’s office in their domestic violence and sexual assault unit.

While studying Political Science in graduate school at Stanford, Cohen saw an opportunity to utilize the rigorous social scientific methodology of political science, drawing from models of violence and victimization in wartime, in order to study a subject that has received less attention in the field — sexual violence in conflict.

Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded Cohen a $245,000 grant for a collaboration with the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) to, as she explains, “collect a much more detailed dataset” for the analysis of incidents and patterns of sexual violence.  She expresses the hope that “eventually we will have [data] that is a lot of use to both the policy community and to academics interested in these questions.”  One ultimate goal is for her work to “help policymakers…be more careful in forming interventions that are not ‘one size fits all.’”

Over the past four years, the United Nations has taken unparalleled steps toward investigating, enhancing data collection on, and curbing sexual violence, including Resolution 1820, in 2008, which provides a mandate for the UN to intervene in cases of widespread sexual violence.  Despite such advances in the international realm, better understanding of the root causes of sexual violence in war is crucial if these efforts are to succeed, and this is where Cohen’s work strikingly breaks new ground.  “It is not always the case that ethnic war and rape go hand in hand.  And it is not always the case that gender inequality automatically means that rape happens during wartime,” Cohen says. “Those are the sorts of things…I am hoping that policy makers will hear when I start publishing my work.”