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No, murder rate for women in South Africa hasn’t spiked by 117%

This article is more than 5 years old

  • A TV programme on gender-based violence claimed there had been a 117% rise in the killing of women in South Africa since 2015, according to “UN estimates”.

  • We traced the claim to a Statistics South Africa report that compared two different sets of data. The report has since been revised.

  • South African police data points to a 7.7% rise in femicide.

Crowds of women took to the streets of South Africa in early August to protest against the violence suffered by women, children and gender non-conforming people in the country.

The Al Jazeera Media Network’s Inside Story hosted a panel on #TheTotalShutdown protests and what could be done to stop gender-based violence across the world.

During the programme, text was shown on screen: “The UN estimates [a] 117% rise in killing of women in South Africa since 2015.” A reader emailed Africa Check asking us to verify the figure.

We looked at the latest data to get a picture of the risk South African women face.

Femicide rate from Statistics South Africa

The 117% figure came from a number of sources, Mohammed Elaichi, a programme editor at Al Jazeera, told Africa Check.

These included articles from the South African Government News Agency, Timeslive, The South African and IOL.

All the articles gave Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) as the source of the figure - not the United Nations, as Al Jazeera’s video text said.

‘Crimes against women’ report

Stats SA released a report on crimes against women in South Africa on 19 June 2018. It lists a number of definitions of “femicide”, which here we simply define as “the murder of women”.

The report included a table showing that the femicide rate had dropped every year from 2000 to 2015. But it also showed, worryingly, a dramatic increase from 9.6 murders per 100,000 women in 2015 to 20.8 in 2016/17.

This was a 117% increase. The figure was widely reported in South African media, but later withdrawn by the statistical agency.

Report revised to remove femicide estimate

Stats SA removed the femicide estimate from the report the week after it was published, Raphael Kasonga, a director at the statistical agency, told Africa Check.

The dramatic increase shown in the report was the result of comparing two different data sets: the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) femicide estimates and Stats SA’s victims of crime survey.

The WHO estimated that 9.6 out of every 100,000 women in South Africa were murdered in 2015. The victims of crime survey estimate was 20.8 per 100,000 in 2016/17.

But Stephanie Burrows, a technical officer in the WHO’s Violence and Injury Prevention programme, told Africa Check that “it is not correct to compare WHO estimates with other figures as the methodology differs completely”.

Crime victims survey is useful, but has limitations

Stats SA’s victims of crime survey is useful as a complement to police crime data, according to Lizette Lancaster, the Institute for Security StudiesCrime and Justice Information Hub manager.

It does have it’s limitations, however.

First, it wasn’t the “best vehicle for measuring interpersonal violence such as violence against women”, Lancaster said. This is because the crimes of femicide and domestic violence take place in the very household being surveyed.

Second, as statistician-general Risenga Maluleke explained in the revised report, while the survey sample was “reasonably large”, the number of households that experience these crimes was “often very small”. This could lead to high levels of error.

Third, people understand definitions and concepts differently. Violence and assault may not be understood as crimes and so might not be reported to Stats SA in the victims of crime survey.

“The concept of murder is also controversial as some may not regard a killing as murder while others may believe that a legally defined murder was indeed an accident,” said Lancaster.

WHO data doesn’t show 117% increase

So what do we know about the risk of murder faced by women in South Africa?

The WHO’s Burrows provided the organisation’s most recent femicide numbers.

To calculate their estimates WHO uses information from various sources. They consider crimes recorded by the police as well as vital registration information, data from the WHO’s mortality database and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s global studies on homicide.

Their estimates show a murder rate of 12.2 per 100,000 females in 2015 and 12.1 per 100,000 in 2016. This works out to a 0.8% decrease.

SA femicide rate per 100,000 female population
Femicide rate19.413.412.2 [7.1-20.2]12.1 [6.8-20.1]

Source: World Health Organisation disease burden and mortality estimates 2000-2016

However, Burrows told Africa Check that she would not advise reporting on the percentage drop between the two years because the decrease was so small.

She added that the estimates were modelled and had wide confidence intervals (marked in square brackets in the table above). A confidence interval is the range of values in which a measure of population is likely to be found.  

In the WHO’s femicide estimates, the confidence intervals for 2015 and 2016 overlap.  This means further analysis is needed to find out if the change between the two years is statistically significant.

Calculating femicide rate from police statistics

Data from the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Stats SA also disproves that there has been a 117% increase in femicide.

SAPS provides data on the number of women, 18 years and older, reported murdered in each financial year. Africa Check used this data and Stats SA population estimates for women in this group to calculate the femicide rate. (Note: We used population estimates from the end of September as this is the middle of the financial year, which runs from April to March.)

Number of women (18+) murdered in South Africa & the femicide rate
YearWoman 18+ murderedFemicide rate

Source: South African Police Service and Statistics South Africa

The data shows that the femicide rate increased from 13 murders per 100,000 women in 2015/16 to 14 murders per 100,000 women in 2016/17. This is an increase of 7.7%.

Conclusion: Femicide rise of 117% comes from incorrect comparison of figures, now withdrawn, in Stats SA report

Media reports and government statements claimed South Africa had experienced a 117% spike in femicide – the murder of women – between 2015 and 2016/17.

This figure was based on estimates of the female murder rate provided by Stats SA for 2016/17. These estimates were incorrectly compared to World Health Organisation data from 2015.

The two sets of data were each the result of different research methods, and so could not be compared. Stats SA has since revised its report to exclude the estimates.

The most recent South African police data shows a 7.7% increase in the femicide rate between 2015/16 and 2016/17.

Based on this information, we rate the claim as incorrect.

Edited by Kate Wilkinson

Want to know why we fact-checked this claim? Read about it in our explainer.


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