Skip to main content

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

  • Dara Kay Cohen (a1)

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.

Hide All
Advocates for Human Rights, The. 2009. “A House with Two Rooms: Final Report of the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission Diaspora Project.” June 19: 245.
African Rights. 1995. “Rwanda: Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers.” London, UK: African Rights.
Alison Miranda. 2004. “Women as Agents of Political Violence: Gendering Security.” Security Dialogue 35, no. 4 (December): 447–63.
Alison Miranda. 2007. “Wartime Sexual Violence: Women's Human Rights and Questions of Masculinity.” Review of International Studies 33, no. 1 (January): 7590.
Annan Jeannie, Blattman Christopher, Carlson Khristopher, and Mazurana Dyan. 2011. “Civil War, Reintegration, and Gender in Northern Uganda.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55, no. 6 (December): 877908.
Asher Jana, ed., and Human Rights Data Analysis Group. 2004. “ABA/Benetech Sierra Leone War Crimes Documentation Survey (slwcd).” At
Baaz Maria Eriksson, and Stern Maria. 2009. “Why Do Soldiers Rape? Masculinity, Violence, and Sexuality in the Armed Forces in the Congo (DRC).” International Studies Quarterly 53, no. 2 (June): 495518.
Bellows John, and Miguel Edward. 2009. “War and Local Collective Action in Sierra Leone.” Journal of Public Economics 93, no. 11–12 (December): 1144–57.
Bijleveld Catrien, and Hendriks Jan. 2003. “Juvenile Sex Offenders: Differences between Group and Solo Offenders.” Psychology, Crime and Law 9, no. 3 (September): 237–45.
Blattman Christopher. 2009. “From Violence to Voting: War and Political Participation in Uganda.” American Political Science Review 103, no. 2 (May): 231–47.
Bloom Mia. 2011. Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Ontario, Canada: Penguin.
Bourke Joanna. 1999. An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare. London, UK: Granta Books.
Bourke Joanna. 2007. Rape: Sex, Violence, History. London, UK: Virago Press.
Brownmiller Susan. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.
Bystydzienski Jill. 1993. “Women in Groups and Organizations: Implications for the Use of Force.” In Howes Ruth and Stevenson Michael, eds., Women and the Use of Military Force. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner.
Card Claudia. 1996. “Rape as a Weapon of War.” Hypatia 11, no. 4 (Autumn): 518.
Carpenter R. Charli. 2003. “‘Women and Children First’: Gender, Norms and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans, 1991–1995.” International Organization 57, no. 4 (November): 661–94.
Carpenter R. Charli. 2006. “Recognizing Gender-Based Violence against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations.” Security Dialogue 37, no. 1 (March): 83103.
Carvajal Doreen. 2010. “A Female Approach to Peacekeeping.” New York Times. March 5. At, accessed October 26, 2011.
Cohen Dara Kay. 2010. “Explaining Sexual Violence during Civil War.” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University.
Cohen Dara Kay. Forthcoming. “Explaining Rape during Civil War: Cross-national Evidence, 1980–2009.” American Political Science Review.
Coulter Chris. 2008. “Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War: Challenging the Assumptions?Feminist Review 88 (April): 5473.
Coulter Chris. 2009. Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers: Women's Lives through War and Peace in Sierra Leone. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
DeGroot Gerard. 2008. “Wanted: A Few Good Women.” Keynote address at the Gender Issues in Peacekeeping Missions conference, United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Rwanda Defense Forces, Kigali, Rwanda, March 28–29.
Faedi Benedetta. 2010. “From Violence against Women to Women's Violence in Haiti.” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University.
Franklin Karen. 2004. “Enacting Masculinity: Antigay Violence and Group Rape as Participant Theater.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 1, no. 2 (April): 2540.
Goldstein Joshua S. 2001. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gourevitch Philip, and Morris Errol. 2008. “Exposure: The Woman behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib.” New Yorker, March 24. At, accessed October 26, 2011.
Groth Nicholas A., and Birbaum H. Jean. 1979. Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender. New York, N.Y.: Plenum Press.
Gutiérrez Francisco Sanín. 2008. “Repertoires of Violence: Colombia 1930–2006.” Manuscript.
Hudson Valerie M., Caprioli Mary, Ballif-Spanvill Bonnie, McDermott Rose, and Emmett Chad F.. 2009. “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States.” International Security 33, no. 3 (Winter): 745.
Humphreys Macartan, and Weinstein Jeremy M.. 2004. “What the Fighters Say: A Survey of Ex-Combatants in Sierra Leone, June–August 2003.” At, accessed May 17, 2013.
Humphreys Macartan, and Weinstein Jeremy M.. 2008. “Who Rebels? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War.” American Journal of Political Science 52, no. 2 (April): 436–55.
Husejnovic Merima. 2011. “Bosnian War's Wicked Women Get Off Lightly.” Balkan Insight. February 7. At, accessed October 26, 2011.
Jewkes Rachel, Dunkle Kristin, Koss Mary P., Levin Jonathan B., Nduna Mzikazi, Jama Nwabisa, and Sikweyiya Yandisa. 2006. “Rape Perpetration by Young, Rural South African Men: Prevalence, Patterns and Risk Factors.” Social Science and Medicine 63, no. 11 (December): 2949–61.
Johnson Kristin, Scott Jennifer, Rughita Bigy, Kisielewski Michael, Asher Jana, Ong Ricardo, and Lawry Lynn. 2010. “Association of Sexual Violence and Human Rights Violations with Physical and Mental Health in Territories of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Journal of the American Medical Association 304, no. 5 (August): 553–62.
Jones Adam. 2002. “Gender and Genocide in Rwanda.” Journal of Genocide Research 4, no. 1 (March): 6594.
Kaminski Marek M. 2003. “Games Prisoners Play: Allocation of Social Roles in a Total Institution.” Rationality and Society 15, no. 2 (May): 189218.
Keen David. 2005. Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave: 242.
Kier Elizabeth. 1998. “Homosexuals in the U.S. Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness.” International Security 23, no. 2 (Autumn): 539.
Landesman Peter. 2002. “A Woman's Work.” New York Times Magazine, September 15. At, accessed May 17, 2013.
MacKenzie Megan. 2009. “Securitization and Desecuritization: Female Soldiers and the Reconstruction of Women in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone.” Security Studies 18, no. 2 (May): 241–61.
MacKenzie Megan. 2010. “Securitizing Sex? Towards a Theory of the Utility of Wartime Sexual Violence.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 12, no. 2 (June): 202–21.
MacKinnon Catherine. 2006. Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.
McKay Susan. 2005. “Girls as ‘Weapons of Terror’ in Northern Uganda and Sierra Leonean Rebel Fighting Forces.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28, no. 5 (September–October): 385–97.
McKay Susan, and Mazurana Dyan. 2004. Where Are the Girls? Girls in Fighting Forces in Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Mozambique: Their Lives during and after War. Montreal, Canada: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.
McKelvey Tara, ed. 2007. One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers. Emeryville, Calif.: Seal Press.
Mezey Gillian. 1994. “Rape in War.” Journal of Forensic Psychiatry 5, no. 3 (December): 583–97.
Mueller John. 2000. “The Banality of ‘Ethnic War.’” International Security 25, no. 1 (Summer): 4270.
O'Rourke Lindsey. 2009. “What's Special about Female Suicide Terrorism.” Security Studies 18, no. 4 (December): 681718.
O'Sullivan Chris. 1991. “Acquaintance Gang Rape on Campus.” In Parrot Andrea and Bechhofer Laurie, eds., Acquaintance Rape: The Hidden Crime. New York. N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons: 140–57.
Pershing Jana L. 2006. “Men and Women's Experiences with Hazing in a Male-Dominated Elite Military Institution.” Men and Masculinities 8, no. 4 (April): 470–92.
Peters Krijn, and Richards Paul. 1998. “‘Why We Fight’: Voices of Youth Combatants in Sierra Leone.” Africa 68, no. 2 (March): 183210.
Physicians for Human Rights. 2002. “War-Related Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone: A Population-Based Assessment.” At
Porter Louise, and Alison Laurence. 2006. “Examining Group Rape: A Descriptive Analysis of Offender and Victim Behavior.” European Journal of Criminology 3, no. 3 (July): 357–81.
Rabbie Jacob M., and Lodewijkx Hein F. M.. 1995. “Aggressive Reactions to Social Injustice by Individuals and Groups as a Function of Social Norms, Gender, and Anonymity.” Social Justice Research 8, no. 1 (March): 740.
Scully Diana. 1990. Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists. Boston, Mass.: Unwin Hyman.
Sharlach Lisa. 1999. “Gender and Genocide in Rwanda: Women as Agents and Objects of Genocide.” Journal of Genocide Research 1, no. 3 (November): 387–99.
Sharlach Lisa. 2000. “Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.” New Political Science 22, no. 1: 89102.
Sharlach Lisa. 2009. “States of Emergency, State of Terror: Sexual Violence in the South African and Peruvian Counterinsurgencies.” Journal of Power 2, no. 3 (December): 441–60.
Sivakumaran Sandesh. 2007. “Sexual Violence against Men in Armed Conflict.” European Journal of International Law 18, no. 2: 253–76.
Sjoberg Laura. Forthcoming. Rape among Women: Women War Rapists and Sex Subordination. New York, N.Y.: New York University Press.
Sjoberg Laura, and Gentry Caron. 2007. Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women's Violence in Global Politics. London, UK, and New York, N.Y.: Zed Books.
Smith Alison L., Gambette Catherine, and Longley Thomas. 2004. “Conflict Mapping in Sierra Leone: Violations of International Humanitarian Law from 1991 to 2002.” No Peace without Justice. At, accessed October 26, 2011.
Specht Irma. 2006. Red Shoes: Experiences of Girl Combatants in Liberia. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
Stemple Lara. 2008. “Male Rape and Human Rights.” Hasting Law Journal 60: 605–46.
Theidon Kimberly. 2007. “Gender in Transition: Common Sense, Women, and War.” Journal of Human Rights 6, no. 4 (July–August): 453–78.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Sierra Leone. 2004. “Witness to Truth: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone.” At, accessed October 26, 2011.
United Nations General Assembly. 2006. “In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General.” Document A/61/122/Add.1, July 6.
Van Creveld Martin. 2000. “The Great Illusion: Women in the Military.” Millennium 29, no. 2: 429–42.
Vikman Elisabeth. 2005. “Modern Combat: Sexual Violence in Warfare, Part II.” Anthropology and Medicine 12, no. 1 (April): 3346.
Weinstein Jeremy. 2007. Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Winslow Donna. 1999. “Rites of Passage and Group Bonding in the Canadian Airborne.” Armed Forces and Society 25, no. 3 (April): 429–57.
Wood Elisabeth Jean. 2006. “Variation in Sexual Violence during War.” Politics and Society 34, no. 3 (September): 307–41.
Wood Elisabeth Jean. 2008. “Sexual Violence during War: Toward an Understanding of Variation.” In Shapiro Ian; Kalyvas Stathis, and Masoud Tarek, eds., Order, Conflict, and Violence. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press: 321–51.
Wood Elisabeth Jean. 2009. “Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When Is Wartime Rape Rare?Politics and Society 37, no. 1 (March):131–61.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 482 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1555 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.