Dara Kay Cohen, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, spoke at Weill Hall at the Ford School Thursday, sharing details from her book examining rape in modern civil wars.

The book, which is yet to be published, is based on statistics from a number of civil wars and draws on her fieldwork in Sierra Leone, El Salvador and East Timor. Cohen discussed her work, describing the occurrence of rape during civil wars and across different factions within the same wars since 1980. The event was hosted by the International Policy Center.

“There is a huge amount of political will to do something about the problem of rape and other forms of sexual violence during war,” Cohen said.

She added that there is no consensus on the causes and consequences of rape during wartime and that most literature on civil war violence is focused on lethal violence.

Unlike other studies that have examined this type of conflict, Cohen’s focus is on the perpetrators themselves and what types of armed forces are more likely to engage in gang rape. She noted that traditional arguments explaining sexual violence in civil wars are opportunism, greed of perpetrators, ethnic hatred and gender inequality.

In her book, Cohen develops her own argument, which she calls “combatant socialization.” The method of recruitment is an important factor in this argument, suggesting that groups with forced recruitment have to build cohesion. The level of cohesion within armed groups is an important predictor of whether and how frequently costly group violence occurs.

She noted that criminology literature suggests that group violence helps establish cohesion within militant groups. Gang rape helps establish relationships among the perpetrators and can raise the status of perpetrators, differentiating group perpetrators from lone perpetrators.

“The basic point of the combatant socialization argument is that the desire for combatants who have been forcedly recruited to fit in is a powerful motivator for participating in acts of group violence,” Cohen said.

Fitting in is more about attaining protection and access to shelter during the conflict, she said. Statistics from modern civil wars show that civil wartime rape by state and non-state actors is associated with forms of forced recruitment, which is in line with her argument.

Cohen did research following the wars in Sierra Leone, which lasted from 1991 to 2002; East Timor, which lasted from 1975 to 1999; and in El Salvador, a war from 1979 to 1992. She interviewed former combatants who spoke to her about their experiences in their respective conflicts, including their involvement in sexual violence.

Her fieldwork yielded a number of different results, including data demonstrating that most reported rapes were public gang rapes. Furthermore, there were reports of gang rapes by both sexes. There was also a positive correlation between groups that abducted most often and those that raped most often. Finally, rape was not usually ordered by commanders, according to Cohen’s findings.

Cohen noted that the combatant socialization argument is not absolute and that specific background circumstances in each case affect the occurrence of rape. She added that societal effects of mass rape during civil war are very complicated and hard to generalize.

Public Policy Prof. Melvyn Levitsky, a former ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights during the Reagan administration, said the presentation offered him a different perspective on causes of rape during civil wars. Levitsky said empowering governments to prevent armed groups from abducting people could certainly help.

“I am intrigued by the research from a policy standpoint that seems to indicate there would be very few tools to stem rape in this intragroup conflicts, in the ethnic conflicts especially,” Levitsky said.

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