Explaining Wartime Rape

It has been two decades since the Peruvian Civil War ended, and yet the violence of the conflict has extended far into the post-conflict period. Namely, rape and sexual violence, which were widespread during the conflict, continue to be perpetrated. Despite post-war policies designed by the Peruvian government to stop violence against women, many women continue to experience heightened levels of insecurity. In part, measures to tackle insecurity have been unsuccessful because government actors fail to understand why rape happened in the first place.




#NiUnaMenos is a Latin American feminist movement

which campaigns against gender-based violence. 


Wartime rape—also sometimes referred to as “collective rape”—is a distinct form of violence against women that takes shape during conflict. Four key theories attempt to explain why wartime rape occurs: realist theory, feminist theory, genocidal rape theory, and combatant socialization theory. Using data from WomanStats, I employed original empirical analysis to test feminist theory. Ultimately, I advocate a pluralistic, sociocultural approach to understanding the phenomenon. This has significant impacts on how governments, international bodies, civil society actors, and others address rape during conflict and seek redress for victims.


Some wartime rape theorists posit that rape is simply the inevitable byproduct of conflict. Realist theorists believe that violence against women is the natural extension of violence in war. Relatedly, biological determinists, or “pressure-cooker” theorists, believe that soldiers become sexually frustrated and capitalize on the anarchy of conflict to fulfill sexual desires.[1]


However, these theories rest on the flawed assumption that soldiers simply become rapists because war has been declared.[2] They fail to acknowledge that wartime rape is a politicized phenomenon: it is both an active weapon and strategy of war. As we can see in the map below, in many conflict-effected regions rape is used “as a weapon of war by the military or by rebel groups.” As such, it not only concerns national security, but also gender-based insecurity.[3] There is an impotence for rape which underwrites situational opportunism.


If rape is not simply a reflection of the violence of conflict, then how might we explain when, where, and to what degree it occurs? Sociocultural theories of wartime rape aim to answer this question.
Feminist theory says that wartime rape is most common where women’s inequality is greater. In this view, the treatment of women during peacetime constructs women’s lives as inferior, thus making violence against them more acceptable in conflict. As such, rape is an effective weapon of war because it “both inflicts grave harm on individuals and symbolically assaults the larger community to which the female belongs.”[4]


Genocidal rape theory, initially proposed by Catharine MacKinnon in response to the rapes of Muslim women during the Bosnian War, posits that rape is meant to wipe out or dishonor a certain ethnic group. MacKinnon writes: “What is happening here is first a genocide, in which ethnicity is a tool for political hegemony; the war is an instrument of the genocide; the rapes are an instrument of war.”[5]


Finally, Dara Kay Cohen recently (2004) proposed that wartime rape is a method of socializing combatants, particularly those that come from disparate recruiting centers.[6] Employing original empirical analysis, Cohen found that only combatant socialization held explanatory power for the severity of rape during conflict. She found no significant correlation between inequality, or ethnic tensions, and rape.[7]


Using Valerie Hudson’s data on the severity of rape during conflict from WomanStats, I conducted my own empirical analysis to test the feminist theory of wartime rape.[8] Cohen only focused on civil wars; I looked at a broader range of conflicts, but from a more recent time period (2015-2018). I wanted to see if using a different measure of rape severity, a wider range of proxies for gender inequality, and a lower threshold for conflicts would alter her results.


The results of this analysis can be found below:


Birth Rate Crude (per 1K)   

Birth Rate Ordinal


Fertility Rate


Infant Mortality Rate

Coefficient & Standard Error 2.1079 (1.0049)  

0.25126 (0.12599)


0.32163 (0.15264)


4.3641 (2.0264)

R-squared 0.145  









Adjusted R-squared 0.112 0.0993 0.113 0.119
P-value 0.0458** 0.0567*






Significance level * p < 0.1 ** p < 0.05




This analysis reveals that inequality is positively, albeit weakly, correlated with wartime rape, and thus does not hold full explanatory power. However, there are also flaws with the other sociocultural theories of wartime rape. Not all wartime rape occurs in wars based on ethnic cleavages. Genocidal rape theory also risks negating the gendered aspect of wartime rape by inextricably tying women’s subjugation to that of a distinct ethnic group. Rape may be a method of combatant socialization, but then why does it occur in conflicts where combatants are already socialized? And why rape as opposed to another method of socialization?


As Katrina Lee Koo writes: “there is a distinction between choosing to be silent in a discourse and being silenced by a discourse.”[9] In this regard, theories of wartime rape hold incredible power—not only to provoke international and nation action, but to empower and acknowledge those who have suffered. To truly explain wartime rape, a pluralistic, sociocultural approach is needed which acknowledges the multidimensionality of rape as a politicized weapon of war as well as a gendered security issue. Women’s inequality, ethnic cleavages, and combatant socialization must be taken in unison to fully understand the role of rape during conflict and take steps to decrease its severity.


Following the Peruvian Civil War, the government passed the Law of Equal Opportunities between Men and Women.[10] While the Peruvian government rightly identified inequality as a contributor to gender-based violence, it did not fully recognize the ethnic dimension. Indigenous women in the Andes and Amazon were the main targets of violence, frequently at the hands of white and mestizo Andeans who deemed them ethnically inferior.[11] The Law has been unsuccessfully applied to indigenous contexts, in part because many of the services and communications are not available in the indigenous Quechua language.[12] Organizations such as the OHCHR and the non-profit center for Peruvian women, Flora Tristán, are working to encourage the government to provide more resources to indigenous women, in Quechua.


[1]Gottschall, Jonathan. 2004. “Explaining Wartime Rape.” The Journal of Sex Research41 (2): 133.

[2]Koo, Katrina Lee. 2002. “Confronting a Disciplinary Blindness: Women, War and Rape in the International Politics of Security.” Australian Journal of Political Science 37 (3): 529.

[3]Hansen, Lee. 2001. “Gender, Nation, Rape: Bosnia and the Construction of Security.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 3 (1).

[4]Jefferson, LaShawn R. Jefferson. 2004. “In War as in Peace: Sexual Violence and Women’s Status.” Human Rights Watch: World Report 2004.

[5]MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1994. “Rape, Genocide, and Women’s Human Rights.” Harvard Women’s Law Journal.

[6]Cohen, Dara Kay. 2013. “Explaining Rape during Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980-2009).” American Political Science Review 107 (3).


[8]Hudson, Valerie. “LRW-SCALE-11: Comprehensive Rape Scale.” WomanStats, http://www.womanstats.org.

[9]Koo, Katrina Lee. 2002. “Confronting a Disciplinary Blindness: Women, War and Rape in the International Politics of Security.” Australian Journal of Political Science 37 (3): 531.

[10]Mauleón, Margarita Martínez. 2012. “Resumen Ejecutivo: Informe y recomendaciones sobre los derechos humanos de las mujeres indígenas en el marco de la CEDAW.” Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristán.

[11]Wilhoit, Mary Elena. 2017. “Performing Race and Gender in the Andes.” Revista: the Harvard Review of Latin American.


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