Rape During Civil War

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Rape During Civil War
By Dara Kay Cohen
Cornell University Press, 2016
288 pp.
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This must have been a harrowing book to research, for Cohen interviewed not only victims of wartime rape but perpetrators as well. Her case studies come from East Timor, El Salvador, and Sierra Leone and are backed up by an analysis of data from many other civil wars. Her achievement is to shift the debate away from the question of whether rape most often occurs as a result of a deliberate military strategy, ethnic hatred, or simple opportunism and to instead focus on what she calls “combatant socialization.” She notes that the prevalence of mass rape in civil wars varies (although it occurs in at least 75 percent of cases) and that many rapes are committed by gangs made up of members of militias who have often been forced into joining the fighting. These observations lead her to argue that rape helps forge group cohesion by breaking social taboos, communicating “norms of virility and masculinity,” and increasing mutual esteem among fighters. In that sense, rape in wartime is as likely to result from weak discipline as from political direction. 

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