FP Explainer

Why Is It So Hard to Identify the World’s Rape Capital?

How it's possible for Botswana and Sweden to top a global ranking of rape.

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/AFP/Getty Images
Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/AFP/Getty Images

In the new March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Laura Heaton investigates a 2010 incident of mass rape committed over a period of four days by Congolese rebels in Luvungi, a small town in the country’s war-torn east. As horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and children came flooding out of the town at the time, the U.N.’s special representative for sexual violence in conflict labeled the Democratic Republic of the Congo the "rape capital of the world" — a designation reinforced by the media. "Forty-eight women raped every hour in Congo," a 2011 article in the Guardian declared, going on to call Congo "the centre of rape as a weapon of war" and "the worst place on Earth to be a woman."

But are these superlatives warranted? There is no arguing that rape — particularly as an act of aggression — is an egregious problem in the country. But is Congo really the worst offender? And if not Congo, what is the world’s real rape capital? It turns out that’s pretty impossible to determine. 

Going by the United Nations’ widely referenced survey of crime statistics around the world, the five countries with the highest per capita rates of rape — defined by the U.N. as "sexual intercourse without valid consent" based on police records — are a varied bunch: Botswana, Sweden, Nicaragua, Grenada, and the United Kingdom (the organization does not have data on Congo). But before we go labeling Sweden or Botswana the world’s epicenter of rape, a closer look at the ranking reveals the staggering complexity behind the numbers. 

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. 

More generally, the definitional limitations of international crime statistics have contributed to distorted results about the world’s "kidnapping capitals." Australia, for instance, leads the pack, not because masked men are nabbing people off the streets left and right but because under the country’s penal system, custody battles where one parent objects to the other spending time with the child counts as "kidnapping." 

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes has put together a framework to address these difficulties that makes a stark classificatory distinction between rape as a sexual act and rape as an act of war or aggression, meaning statistically these would be catalogued as separate crimes. The approach implies that rape in Congo, which is often conflict-based, is not really comparable to the kind of sexual violence faced by women in, say, Sweden. But Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege project, wonders if such a distinction is useful. "In war, women’s bodies are used to send a message to the enemy: We can conquer you, humiliate you, control you," she told FP. "I don’t know that that’s terribly different from the way men who violate women think about us in peacetime. Rape is an act of power and control." 

Even more vexing than these categorical challenges are the statistical ones. When it comes to cases of rape, how and what data is gathered can have a significant impact on our ability to make valid cross-country inferences. The U.N. data, for example, is based on criminal reports of rape, which means that factors such as a well-organized, sympathetic outreach program; an efficient system for reporting transgressions; a highly competent police force; and women’s knowledge of their own rights — all desirable things for a country to have — could produce a higher number of reported rapes in certain countries, making these places seem worse off than their less well-equipped neighbors. Having a high incidence of rape is never a good thing, but the fact that women in countries like Sweden report sexual acts against them — and that those accounts are taken seriously — shows that the system, in part, is working. 

Conversely, in India, where large swathes of the population live in rural areas with low literacy levels, criminal records may not be the best reflection of the prevalence of rape. According to the U.N., India ranked 49th out of 60 countries with available data in 2010. Only recently has India’s rape problem received international attention — fueled not by crime statistics but by a deadly gang rape in December, which has prompted more victims to step forward and discuss their own experiences. 

The U.N. study acknowledges its own limitations and suggests surveying as an alternative method for collecting criminal statistics. But these "victimization surveys" come with their own host of problems; everything from the format to the skill of the interviewer can skew the results. Amelia Hoover Green, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, points to one example from the United States, noting that a 2009 study found that changing survey wording led to a tenfold increase in reports of forcible rape on college campuses in the past year. When applied to the total number of female college students in the country, those results translated into the difference between 14,000 and 140,000 rapes. Compare that range to the official criminal record — the FBI catalogued 459 forcible rape cases at U.S. universities that year — and the volatility of these numbers becomes clear (and then imagine replicating these quantitative problems on a global scale). 

A final factor contributing to the fuzzy math around sexual violence is the most ubiquitous and damaging issue plaguing rape statistics: victim silence. "Women have very little incentive to come forward," Wolfe explains. "Police have been known to re-rape, bribe, or make fun of rape survivors globally. Husbands have divorced or cast out women from Syria to Sudan to Guatemala when they’ve discovered their wives have been raped." Despite the physical and psychological horrors of rape, victims’ lives can be made worse if they disclose their experiences. 

But the converse is also true. In rare instances, there are benefits to being identified as a rape victim that could motivate a person to falsely come forward. Heaton provides a compelling account of this in Luvungi, where sexual violence against women attracted the dollars and attention of international donors, perhaps creating "perverse" incentives. One study described examples of this problem in other countries like Colombia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where reporting rape entitled victims to free medical attention in the wake of catastrophes. These incentives are undoubtedly helpful in encouraging victims who would otherwise remain silent to come forward, but they also speak to the difficulty of using health records as a basis for grand, sweeping claims about the prevalence of rape.

On the one hand, these rare instances of over-reporting can undermine the efforts of international organizations to be taken seriously. On the other, the precise figures may be less significant than what lies behind them. As Wolfe cautions, "With numbers like these — even if they were exaggerated — why would we worry about over-reporting? Isn’t the violation of a single woman too much?"

Marya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.