In the Echo Chamber: Is South Africa Really The Rape Capital of the World?

Echo chamber: when a claim, often erroneous, bounces around the echo chamber of government and media, making it sound as if multiple, reliable sources are corroborating the same story.

In the last decade, multiple countries have competed for the title of "rape capital of the world." Sometimes it's India. Often it's the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Africa.

According to fact-checking and news gathering website Africa Check, the vast majority of media claims about South Africa as the world's rape capital are based on claims repeated by other media sources. These original claims are, in turn, based on fake allegations allegedly made by reputable bodies like the United Nations and INTERPOL. When Africa Check interviewed officials at both organizations, they denied making these claims. An INTERPOL even said, "We have previously... request[ed] a correction in this regard, and will do so again. Unfortunately these false reports have been repeated by various media."

An excellent 2013 Foreign Policy article by Marya Hannun explores why it's so hard to declare one country the world's rape capital in the first place. Hannun writes: 

The first problem in cross-country comparisons of crime rates in general — and rape in particular — is definitional. What exactly constitutes rape? Statistics tend to skew upward in places with broader, more inclusive laws. In Sweden, for example, each instance of sexual violence is catalogued as its own crime. "When a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events," one Swedish sociologist explained to the BBC. "In many other countries it would just be one record." In Congo, by contrast, the World Health Organization found that police did not record reported cases of sexual violence in the absence of a witness who could testify to the use of force. 

Last October, I interviewed Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola of the University of the Witwatersrand for Ayiba Magazine. Gqola's latest book, Rape: A South African Nightmare,  explores the troubling realities of South African rape culture. When I asked her about the claim that South Africa's the world's rape capital, she had this to say: 

I don’t think South Africa in fact has more rapes than everywhere else in the world. We never knew this and there is no way of knowing it. It’s the media reportage that very quickly started conflating research that showed highest reporting rates to highest incidents of rape. For a time we had much higher rates of reporting – because for a time, in the early days of our democracy – women had increased faith in the criminal justice system. So, what we actually had was the highest rate of reported rapes in the world. All over the world, rates of reporting are atrociously low, as research from different countries repeatedly shows. Our reporting rates have decreased significantly, as rape survivors realized that faith in the criminal justice system is often not rewarded. So if we were working with rates of reporting today, rather than in the mid-1990s, our statistics would be unspectacular comparatively. This is not the same as saying rape incidents are lower.

Most statistics on rape are based on data sets that aggregate criminal reports of rape. Unsuprisingly, in countries with good outreach systems and efficient, competent police forces, reports are likely to be higher. When women don't trust the system, they don't report sexual violence. 

With different legal definitions of and methods of recording rape in addition to under-reporting of sexual violence worldwide, making international comparisons is hard. Before we make generalizable claims like which country is the world's rape capital, we need better data. To obtain better data, we require systems that better support survivors of sexual violence by "interrupt[ing] the continuum in societal attitudes, norms, and behaviors that enable rape and rape culture."

Akinyi OchiengComment