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Will 74,400 women be raped this August in South Africa?

This article is more than 9 years old

Botched numbers used to support the claim“More than 45,000 South African women raped so far this month,” reads the chilling headline of a Times LIVE article published on August 20 2014.

The article lists Blow the Whistle, a rape advocacy campaign launched by luxury rewards programme Legacy Lifestyle, as its source. The organisation’s director, Mike Rowley, is then quoted as saying that “[i]n August 2014, statistically there’ll be a total of 74,400 rapes”.

On its website Blow the Whistle explains how they reached this number: “According to the statistics, every 36 seconds someone is raped in South Africa. That works out to 100 people every hour and 2,400 women every day.”

Their home page also features a counter that ticks over every 36 seconds to show a rape as having occurred.

South Africa does have appalling levels of rape. But could the number truly be this high? Readers asked us to check the claim.

Sexual offences mistaken for rape

When contacted, the marketing manager at Legacy Lifestyle, Andrew Ehmke, told Africa Check that they had come to this number by consulting the police’s 2012/2013 analysis of crime statistics. It showed that 64,514 rapes were reported in that year, he said.

“Through our discussions with various centres and based on numerous articles… we estimate that only 7.5% of rapes are reported,” he explained. “This means that there are roughly 864,000 rapes per year.”

So are Blow the Whistle's calculations sound?

First off, the organisation mistook all sexual offences reported with rape cases reported.

In South Africa, rape statistics are not reported separately by the police, but fall under the sexual offences category, which includes rape and sexual assault (of men, women and children), but also bestiality, flashing, public masturbation and more, as described in Criminal Law Amendment Act 32 of 2007.

Brig. Seimela Nkoshilo, a statistician in the police’s research and statistics unit, has previously shared with Africa Check that 49,376 rapes were reported to the police in 2012/13. The sexual offences count for that year stood at 66,387. (Not 64,514 as Blow the Whistle claimed – that was the number for 2011/12.)

By mistakenly assuming that all sexual offences were rapes, the campaign overstated the number of reported rapes by more than a third, said Tom Moultrie, an associate professor of demography at the University of Cape Town and director of its Centre for Actuarial Research.

“This is false and misleading,” he added. “On top of that, the authors implicitly assume that all the victims are women.”

Under-reporting under-researched

But rape is notoriously under-reported and police statistics are therefore but the tip of the iceberg, Romi Sigsworth, a gender specialist at the Institute for Security Studies, told Africa Check.

“As such, the exact prevalence of rape in South Africa is unknown and, to a large extent, unknowable,” she said.

Lisa Vetten, a researcher specialising in gender violence at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, told Africa Check that estimations can only be regarded as reliable when they are based on peer-reviewed data generated by surveys conducted with random, representative samples of women.

Ehmke provided three articles that he says Blow the Whistle based their estimate on that only 7.5% of rapes are reported. However, none of these articles reference credible, peer-reviewed and representative surveys and Ehmke did not respond to emails asking how they deduced the 7.5% figure from them.

The first article is a News24 reader comment piece which asserted that a rape was committed every 26 or 36 seconds (the writer later contradicted herself by stating “on average, a woman is raped every four minutes”). It shares a large portion of its text with Wikipedia’s sexual violence in South Africa page.

The second document is a report released by Tearfund, a Christian relief and development agency based in Durban, which says that “it is estimated that between 80 and 95 per cent of rapes [in South Africa] are not reported”. The last document is an article on JournalismIziko, a news site run by journalism students of the Durban University of Technology, which stated that “75–95 percent of rape crimes are never reported”.

Vetten told Africa Check that there were other credible studies that Blow the Whistle could have used if they wanted to more reliably estimate under-reporting rates.

The most recent study into reporting rates found that in South Africa’s Gauteng province, only one in 25 rapes (4%) had been reported to police. But this provincial rate cannot be extrapolated to the whole country.

The last national approximation is from a study released in 2002, which estimated that only one in nine rapes (11.1%) were reported to the police.

Using this outdated estimate and 2012/13 rape statistics suggest that 444,384 rapes were committed in 2012/13. This is almost half of Blow the Whistle’s number.

Michelle Solomon, a journalist, researcher and sexual violence activist, expressed skepticism over the sincerity of the campaign. "We have no way of knowing for certain that these numbers are exaggerated. We only know that the numbers the organisation did use are not the generally accepted figures and that they didn't research the issue in enough depth for their campaign to be much more than opportunistic of women's month."

Conclusion: Blow the Whistle’s rape calculations are botched

Blow the Whistle is wrong to claim that someone is raped every 36 seconds and that 74,400 women will therefore be raped this month in South Africa. They have overstated the number of rapes reported to the police and also seem to have thumb-sucked under-reporting rates.

According to Ehmke Blow the Whistle publicise rape statistics with the goal of raising awareness. “We by all means do not pretend to be the be all and end all of rape stats,” he said.

That being the case, they should have been more careful in designing their campaign. The rape counter on their website for one creates the impression of hard and fast data and they have ignored the fact that some of those raped are men.

As Solomon concluded: "Sexual violence is a blight in South Africa, and we need as much help as we can get. What we don't need however, are flash-in-the-pan campaigns that do nothing to actually help survivors of sexual violence, nor do they use the correct statistics or share information that would serve as a form of advocacy."

Additional reading

Rape statistics are regularly misinterpreted and miscalculated, even though the intention may be well-meaning.

“Every four minutes in South Africa somebody is raped… And that’s only the ones that are reported.” Africa Check debunked this claim by morning talk show host John Robbie that was made as part of a Talk Radio 702 “stop rape” campaign in January 2014.

Is a woman in South Africa really more likely to be raped than to learn how to read? This recurring claim, published as early as 2002 by the BBC, is thankfully false.

South Africa is not the “rape capital of the world” as has been published by the Mail and Guardian, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera and Sky News, among others. The label is meaningless, Africa Check established, as differing definitions of rape, different methods of recording incidents of rape and different levels of under-reporting make such international comparisons impossible.

Edited by Anim van Wyk

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