Q&A with Dara Kay Cohen

September 21, 2016
Dara Kay Cohen

Dara Kay Cohen is an assistant professor of public policy and faculty affiliate of the Ash Center. Her recent book, Rape During Civil War, examines the variation in the use of rape during recent civil conflicts; the research for the book draws on extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste and El Salvador.

Q: Can you describe some of the common misconceptions about rape during civil war? Is it accurate to call rape a “weapon of war”?

There are a host of misconceptions about wartime rape; for example, that victims are always women and perpetrators always men, and that it is mainly an African problem. We now know that victims and survivors of rape include both men and women, that both men and women perpetrate rape, and that wartime rape has been reported in every region of the world. 

But perhaps most engrained among misconceptions, is that it is often assumed that when rape occurs on a large scale, it must have been ordered or directed as a "weapon of war." I argue in my book that just because we observe rape to be frequent does not imply it was ordered, and in fact that frequency and whether rape is a strategy of war are entirely separable concepts. Most of the time, rape is not a weapon of war in the sense that it has been ordered as part of a strategy. There are exceptions, including some well documented cases, like the mass rapes in Bosnia and Rwanda. But more commonly, rape is simply tolerated by commanders, rather than ordered for an explicit military purpose. 


Q: In your interviews with ex-combatants, were you able to characterize the motivations of this violence?

I show in my book that rape by armed groups is associated with whether that group abducted its fighters. Based on interviews with former fighters in three post-conflict countries, I argue that rape — and especially gang rape — serves as a means for building cohesion in armed groups that recruit by force. The motivation I emphasize in the book is that fighters are seeking to be perceived as "real fighters" by their peers, and are attempting to regain a lost sense of masculinity from the trauma of their abduction process. However, while I believe that this is the most important motivation, there are a range of motivations that fighters reported, from revenge to sexual gratification. 


Q: Did you uncover notable variations in the instances of rape during civil conflict across different regions of the world?

Yes, there is remarkable variation across contemporary civil conflicts, with no reports of conflict-related rape in some and reports of mass rape in others. This was important to establish early in my project, because variation in rape makes the question of why it happens much more puzzling from a social science perspective. But I ultimately argue that we have been focusing on the wrong level of analysis: we shouldn't be focused so much on which countries or which conflicts have had mass rape, but rather which armed groups have perpetrated rape. 

One illustration of this is something I highlight in the book: while there were a number of armed groups active during the Sierra Leone civil war, they were remarkably demographically similar in terms of ages, tribal affiliations, and levels of education. But only one of these groups, the RUF, committed the vast majority of the reported rape. The most interesting question, then, is not why was Sierra Leone a mass rape war but, say, El Salvador's was not. Rather, it is what distinguishes the RUF from the other groups in Sierra Leone? 


Q: From a policy perspective, what steps can the international community take to prevent rape?

One of the appeals of the "rape as a weapon of war" narrative is that it implies a fairly simple policy solution: punish the commanders who ordered the rape in the past and hope that this will serve as a deterrent for future commanders who might consider ordering rape. Unfortunately, the argument I advance does not imply easy policy interventions; however, there are some steps that can be taken. These include including leveraging some of the correlates of rape (whether the armed group used abduction or perpetrated torture against detainees) as early warning signs. Also, a campaign of naming and shaming perpetrators may then serve to dissuade future perpetrators. In addition, interventions should include increasing the costs of raping for commanders, by making aid or weapons transfers conditional on not raping.