- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Spotlight: Dara Kay Cohen

| Fall/Winter 2018-2019

Dara Kay Cohen is a Ford Foundation Associate Professor of Public Policy at HKS. Her research spans international relations, including international security, civil war and the dynamics of violence, and gender and conflict. Her first book, Rape During Civil War, received several awards, including the 2017 Theodore J. Lowi First Book Award from the American Political Science Association. Cohen is also the recipient of the 2019 Emerging Scholar Award from the International Security Studies Section (ISSS) of the International Studies Association. Her current project is focused on the intersection of political violence, public opinion, and gender in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

For Dara Kay Cohen, research on gender and violence began as a personal commitment to issues of violence against women. As an undergraduate at Brown, she started volunteering as a hotline advocate for the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center. She also volunteered at a domestic violence shelter in Providence. But she hadn’t considered a career in academia until 9/11.

Thinking she’d become a lawyer, Cohen joined the Outstanding Scholars Program of the Department of Justice, a program designed for recent college graduates to serve as paralegals. She ended up working in the Terrorism and Violence Crime Section of the DOJ’s criminal division. She started in July 2001. Two months later, 9/11 struck—and suddenly her section shifted into high gear focusing on global polit- ical violence and international terrorism.

That shift, she says, “changed my whole career trajectory.” After two more years at DOJ, she decided to pursue a PhD in political science at Stanford to deepen her understanding of political violence. As she began work on her dissertation, she noticed a significant gap in the literature regarding the experiences of women amid violent conflict. That dissertation went on to become Cohen’s first book, Rape During Civil War, which has received major awards from the American Political Science Association and the International Studies Association.

At the heart of Cohen’s book is the effort to understand a puzzling phenomenon about the forms sexual violence takes during wartime. While gang rape is relatively rare in peacetime, it accounts for a surprisingly large proportion— upwards of 70 to 80 percent—of reported rapes in wartime. Why the dramatic increase? Cohen hypothesizes that gang rape serves as a perversely effective form of bonding for combatants, particularly for armed groups with poor internal cohesion. She finds that armed groups that have recruited their fighters by force are more likely to perpetrate rape than groups that recruited their fighters voluntarily. Her “combatant socialization” thesis has advanced not only our scholarly understanding of the causes of wartime rape but has also helped to inform policymakers about how to better prevent and respond to it.

In her extensive interviews with both former combatants and survivors in three post-conflict countries, Cohen was struck by the lasting nature of sexual violence.

Among the perpetrators she interviewed, some wept and even asked for forgiveness. But what surprised Cohen was the extent to which many ex-combatants—sometimes interviewed years after the end of the war—still associated their participation in gang rape with a powerful moment of bonding with fellow soldiers.

Many of the survivors Cohen has interviewed, meanwhile, must contend with long- term consequences, including the social stigma of having been gang-raped. Cohen recalls one memorable interview with a brave young woman who had been raped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in front of her family. Considered unmarriageable, the young woman was devastated that she was unlikely to become a wife or a mother, the life she had dreamed of.

Although the available data can paint a grim picture that sexual violence in wartime remains a severe problem in several ongoing wars, Cohen is optimistic that the world’s greater focus on this challenge is beginning to make a difference. Rape in wartime has reached the agenda of high politics; the United Nations Security Council now passes resolutions on these and related topics.

Part of the progress has come from broadening our understanding. For example, a common misconception is that all victims are women. Observers are increasingly recognizing the number of male victims of sexual violence in wartime. “We’ve ignored these victims in the past,” Cohen says, “because we’ve called them cases of abuse or torture, not rape.”

Cohen touches on these themes in the courses she teaches at the Kennedy School, including a course on civil wars and insurgency, and one on gender and conflict. Both courses have received the Kennedy School’s teaching excellence award, Dinner on the Dean. Cohen also coordinates a seminar series focused on issues of gender and security at the Belfer Center.

Norms on wartime tactics have shifted before. After all, a century ago, the use of chem- ical weapons in wartime was common. Today, it is largely taboo. Cohen is cautiously hopeful that someday wartime rape will similarly result in immediate global censure and action.

Dara Kay Cohen (right) during fieldwork in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in May 2017 with Danielle Jung of Emory University, coauthor with Cohen of a book project about gang violence in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Dara Kay Cohen. 

Dara Kay Cohen (right) during fieldwork in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in May 2017 with Danielle Jung of Emory University, coauthor with Cohen of a book project about gang violence in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Dara Kay Cohen. 

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Burek, Josh. "Spotlight: Sara Kay Cohen." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Fall/Winter 2018-2019). 

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