American Political Science Review

Research Article

Explaining Rape during Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980–2009)


Harvard University


Why do some armed groups commit massive wartime rape, whereas others never do? Using an original dataset, I describe the substantial variation in rape by armed actors during recent civil wars and test a series of competing causal explanations. I find evidence that the recruitment mechanism is associated with the occurrence of wartime rape. Specifically, the findings support an argument about wartime rape as a method of socialization, in which armed groups that recruit by force—through abduction or pressganging—use rape to create unit cohesion. State weakness and insurgent contraband funding are also associated with increased wartime rape by rebel groups. I examine observable implications of the argument in a brief case study of the Sierra Leone civil war. The results challenge common explanations for wartime rape, with important implications for scholars and policy makers.


Dara Kay Cohen is Assistant Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 (


  Thanks to Brooke Ackerly, Claire Adida, Michael Barnett, Martha Crenshaw, Luke Condra, Jesse Driscoll, James Fearon, Jonathan Forney, Scott Gates, Amelia Hoover Green, Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, Oliver Kaplan, Ronald Krebs, Bethany Lacina, Michele Leiby, Andrew Mack, Yotam Margalit, Rose McDermott, Scott Sagan, Kenneth Schultz, Jacob Shapiro, Ryan Sheely, Kathryn Sikkink, Alberto Simpser, Paul Staniland, Stephen Walt, Jessica Weeks, Jeremy Weinstein, Elisabeth Wood, anonymous reviewers, the APSR editors, and numerous seminar participants for helpful comments on various stages of this project. Thanks also to Dan Bacon, Emma Welch, Sean Fahnhorst, Matthew Stenberg, and Matthew Valerius for excellent research assistance. I gratefully acknowledge funding support from the National Science Foundation (SES-0720440), the United States Institute of Peace, the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. This study received Human Subjects approval from the Stanford University Institutional Review Board.