Expert Commentary

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

2013 study by the Harvard Kennedy School published in the American Political Science Review on possible causes to variation in rapes during 86 major conflicts.

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:

Keywords: crime

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