World Politics

Research Article

Female Combatants and the Perpetration of Violence: Wartime Rape in the Sierra Leone Civil War

Dara Kay Cohen

John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Email:


Much of the current scholarship on wartime violence, including studies of the combatants themselves, assumes that women are victims and men are perpetrators. However, there is an increasing awareness that women in armed groups may be active fighters who function as more than just cooks, cleaners, and sexual slaves. In this article, the author focuses on the involvement of female fighters in a form of violence that is commonly thought to be perpetrated only by men: the wartime rape of noncombatants. Using original interviews with ex-combatants and newly available survey data, she finds that in the Sierra Leone civil war, female combatants were participants in the widespread conflict-related violence, including gang rape. A growing body of evidence from other conflicts suggests that Sierra Leone is not an anomaly and that women likely engage in conflict-related violence, including sexual violence, more often than is currently believed. Many standard interpretations of wartime rape are undermined by the participation of female perpetrators. To explain the involvement of women in wartime rape, the author argues that women in armed group units face similar pressure to that faced by their male counterparts to participate in gang rape. The study has broad implications for future avenues of research on wartime violence, as well as for policy.

Dara Kay Cohen is an assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is currently writing a book on the causes of rape during civil war.


*  The author thanks Jana Asher, Patrick Ball, Michael Barnett, Jeffrey Checkel, James Fearon, Amelia Hoover Green, Leah Knowles, Ronald Krebs, Michele Leiby, Meghan Foster Lynch, Rose McDermott, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Laura Sjoberg, Jeremy Weinstein, Elisabeth Wood, the editors of World Politics, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and advice. Matthew Valerius and Rebecca Olson provided excellent research assistance. Special thanks to Jana Asher and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, as well as to Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy Weinstein, for sharing survey data, and to pride-sl and Ibrahim Bangura for arranging interviews. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2009 International Studies Association annual convention and at the United States Institute for Peace in 2010. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation (SES-0720440), the United States Institute for Peace, and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (cisac) and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. This study received Human Subjects approval from the Stanford University Institutional Review Board.