Data distortion: Rape is not a numbers game

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Written by Ufrieda Ho

South Africa’s rape statistics are so muddled some experts call them “meaningless”. But the real challenge is to build a supportive environment that enables rape survivors to report the crime.

Statistics and data are important, but they are also obfuscation and distortion. This is the problem with sexual offences numbers in South Africa.

The first muddle is that South Africa lumps together a range of crimes under the category “sexual offences”. This includes 70 sub-categories ranging from rape through to soliciting for sex and pornography. The categories are an amalgamation of crimes listed under the Sexual Offences Act of 1957 and the corresponding amendment to the Act passed in 2007.

Within the over-arching sexual offences category, the South African Police Services (SAPS) separates out two sub-categories of rape and sexual assault. According to the latest SAPS’s 2015/2016 figures released in September last year, reported rape cases stood at 42,496. This is around 80 percent of the total number of sexual offences cases, at 51,895 cases. Sexual assault makes up about 12 percent of the total (6212 reported cases). Everything else falls into the remaining 8 percent.

The category of sexual assault creates doesn’t give specifics such as whether the victims were men, women or children.

“Essentially we can’t tell much from the police data. We can’t tell if an offence is for sex work or child abuse, for example. This means we don’t know how and where to direct resources most effectively and we don’t know how to report to funders whose aid is essential in fighting the rape scourge,” says Kath Dey, director of Rape Crisis.

The problems don’t end there. Statistics are guesstimates at best because of gross under-reporting of rape, abuse and gender-based violence. Under-reporting is deeply entrenched but there’s no knowing by how much. In the past, the Medical Research Council has used a 1 in 13 ratio of women who report their rape or sexual assault to police.


[quote float = right]What the declining rape number is telling us is not evidence that rape or sexual assault is declining. Rather, it’s telling us that fewer people feel they can trust the police.

Dey says even at Rape Crisis’s Western Cape facilities, only half of the about 6000 people who utilise their range of services say they have reported their rape or sexual assault to police. Dey points out that their own record keeping is a skewed sample because they mostly see women, those older than 14 and people who have access to transport or phone services.

With so few specifics recorded, and so little disaggregated data, it’s impossible to identify “hot spots”, trends or patterns accurately. As Dey stresses, sexual offences are not bound by class, or race; wealth or poverty, gender, or age. They can take place anywhere, at any time.

For Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and the justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, the country’s rape statistics are simply not a reflection of lived reality. He calls them “meaningless”.

Newham also points out that a decline in reported rape and sexual assault figures in the last few years are far from a positive sign. The dropping figures don’t tell of the bigger problem of the consequences of under-reporting.

Serious rape problem

He adds: “We shouldn’t get hung up with the statistics when it comes to rape and sexual assault. We don’t need statistics to tell us that we have a serious rape problem. Even at an average of 116 rapes (using current police statistics divided by the number of days in a year) a day, the numbers are unacceptable”.

“What the declining rape number is telling us is not evidence that rape or sexual assault is declining. Rather, it’s telling us that fewer people feel they can trust the police. They don’t trust that they will be treated with dignity and sensitivity or that their information will be taken down accurately and that they have a chance at proper investigation or justice,” says Newham.

Newham has more confidence in surveys and studies. He says the likes of the Victims of Crime Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa and localised community snapshot surveys, hold better clues for understanding patterns and trends around sexual offence. He says these can better inform preventative programmes and make a stronger case for improved treatment and care for victims.

Safe environment

Statistics South Africa’s Dr Raphael Kasonga says they’ve started to include in their Victims of Crime Survey questions such as ‘In what of the following scenarios do you feel it is OK to beat a woman?’ Kasonga says specific questioning can help measure whether the national campaign on gender equality and other inventions “are changing South Africans attitudes in the right direction”.

Kasonga says surveys are useful in gauging perception and recording experiences which fill in gaps in police statistics. Even so he says: “Our household surveys do not usually offer safe environments for victims to share freely their experiences. Specialised surveys are required and one solution would be to use community structures, but even these cannot provide a complete picture of the problem as many cases go unreported.”

Lisa Vetten, a gender activist and a researcher at Wits University, says data has become a distraction because police statistics are either used as headline grabbers by media or are used by government to “prove” they’re doing their job.

Vetten says both are dangerously flawed and don’t advance the fight to understand the nature of sexual office, to reduce the high numbers; or to ensure justice for victims.

She says: “We should be thinking about what the data is not telling us. We should be asking different questions, not have politicians and police think statistics mean they’re getting tough on crime.”

Ultimately, tackling South Africa’s rape crisis comes down to a shift in policy that encourages and supports the reporting of rape. It has to be about political prioritisation, not distraction in parading distorted numbers. – Health-e News.

An edited version of this story was also published in Daily Maverick

* This story is part of Izwi lami (‘My Voice’), a sexual violence awareness campaign started by Health-e News. The campaign allows survivors to share their stories of surviving sexual violence through SMSing ‘endrape’ to 38006. This will also connect them with counselling services in their province and direct them to a campaign petition calling for packages of care to be provided for survivors in all health facilities across the country: . The SMS service is free and anonymous.


Reporting for this story was supported by Code for Africa’s impactAFRICA fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

About the author

Ufrieda Ho