Africa, Conflicts, Gender, Human Rights, Security, Military

Explaining rape during civil war: Cross-national evidence (1980-2009)

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Last updated: August 21, 2013

Iraqi refugees in Syria (Wikimedia)
Iraqi refugees in Syria (Wikimedia)

Violence against women is horrifyingly common in the United States and the throughout the world. And when civil wars break out, the situation often becomes far worse: Human Rights Watch has described a recent “epidemic of sexual violence” in Egypt; accounts from Syria tell harrowing stories of rape survivors across the country and a 2013 report by the International Rescue Committee found that “rape is a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war.” An independent U.N. international commission of inquiry includes details of “sexual violence, including rape and forms of sexual torture … perpetrated by government forces and affiliated militia against men, women, girls and boys during the Syrian conflict.” The United Nations has also expressed strong concern over the pervasive, ongoing sexual violence in Somalia.

To better understand the frequency and types of sexual violence perpetrated during conflicts, Dara Kay Cohen of the Harvard Kennedy School analyzed the 86 major civil wars that occurred around the world between 1980 and 2009. The resulting study, “Explaining Rape During Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980-2009),” published in 2013 in the American Political Science Review, tests several hypotheses on the variation in rapes during the different conflicts.

Cohen compiled much of the dataset using information from U.S. State Department Human Rights Country reports. The study also includes a case study on rape during the civil conflict in Sierra Leone throughout the 1990s, which is based on interviews with ex-combatants, the 2004 Sierra Leone War Crimes Documentation survey, a survey of over 3,000 randomly selected households, and a nationally representative survey of ex-combatants.

Key findings from the study include:

  • The severity of wartime rape varied greatly, though 62% of the conflicts in the study period involved significant rape in at least one conflict-year; 18 wars were coded as conflicts with “widespread rape,” 35 included “many or numerous reports of rape,” 18 had “isolated reports” of rape, and 15 wars provided no reports of rape.
  • In the study period, rape was found to be worst in: Bosnia Herzegovina, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, India (Kashmir and the Northeast), Indonesia/East Timor, Iraq (Kurds), Liberia (NPFL), Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia (post- Barre and Isaaqs), Sudan (SPLA and Darfur), Tajikistan, Uganda (LRA), and Yugoslavia (UCK).
  • In 45% of the conflicts, fighters were recruited by force. Reports of abductions appeared in 13% of the conflicts, while in 32%, insurgents forced or coerced recruits using other methods.
  • “Both state and insurgent armed groups that have recruited their members through abduction — which subsequently have the lowest levels of internal social cohesion — are more likely to commit widespread rape than are groups that recruited fighters through more voluntary methods.”
  • Forcible recruitment through random abductions provides a statistically significant explanation for the occurrence of wartime rape, even when controlling for other factors. Cohen uses the term combatant socialization to explain this effect: “Rape — especially gang rape — enables groups with forcibly recruited fighters to create bonds of loyalty and esteem from initial circumstances of fear and mistrust.”
  • Wartime rape by insurgents is also associated with state collapse and funding operations through contraband, the latter finding suggesting that, “access to lootable resources has an especially corrupting influence.”
  • Data failed to support several common explanations for rape during wartime: “Wartime rape is not more likely during ethnic conflicts or during genocides. Gender inequality is also not associated with wartime rape.”

The findings suggest that high levels of wartime rape may not be part of a military strategy — it may not be an overt “tool” or “weapon” of war — but instead serve to bond recruits together. “If so, then the phenomenon often originates at the level of the rank-and-file fighters rather than at the level of commanders,” Cohen says, suggesting that reports of abductions by armed groups could serve as an early warning sign of impending widespread rape in conflict zones.

Cohen explains the study’s implications in more detail here and the dynamics of deterrence:

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Keywords: crime


Writer: | August 21, 2013

Citation: Cohen, Dara Kay. “Explaining Rape during Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980-2009),” American Political Science Review, August 2013, Vol. 107, No. 3, 461-477. doi:10.1017/S0003055413000221.

Analysis assignments

Read the issue-related Al Jazeera  article titled "Syrian Women Are Increasingly Becoming Weapons of War in the Battle Between Government Forces and the Opposition."

  1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

Read the full study titled "Explaining Rape During Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980-2009),"

  1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

3 comments

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Paula Lynch Aug 24, 2013 15:25

Rape in armed conflict only began to be reported widely in the early-mid 1990’s – by anyone, anywhere. Attention to the subject converged with the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (1994) and the Beijing World Conference on Women (1995).

You might want to ask when the State Dept began to include rape in armed conflict as a prescribed human rights abuse to be reported in the annual human rights reports. I think it was not until the mid to late 1990’s.

“Rape and pillage” has been a “common” part of war for centuries, and therefore did not receive special attention. When the war in Yugoslavia demonstrated that rape was being used deliberately, as your article discusses, it became part of the human rights agenda, and got the attention it always deserved.

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