3,600 panties for 3,600 rapes per day in SA? Everything that’s wrong with this stat

Comments 1

South African artists claim that 3,600 rapes are committed every day in South Africa. However, their calculations and methodology are flawed.

An art installation called SA´s Dirty Laundry plans to string up 3,600 pairs of underwear in Johannesburg, South Africa, to draw attention to sexual violence.

An article by one of the installation’s creators, Nondumiso Msimanga, explains the calculations behind the figure: “A 2010 study by the Medical Research Council found that just one in 25 in Gauteng even reported rape. Extrapolated from figures at the time, it could have meant that up to 3,600 people in South Africa were raped every day.”

However, the installation’s other creator, Jenny Nijenhuis, said that “the number 3,600 is symbolic of the number of people in South Africa who are raped or sexually abused every day”.

Is either of these claims supported by data?

Confusion between sexual offences & rape

There’s a lot that is wrong with the claims and the reasoning behind it. To start: the artists differ on whether the underwear represents rapes or sexual assaults.

There were 64,921 sexual offences reported to the police in 2010/11 – the period Msimanga says the calculation is based on. Sexual offences is a broad crime category which includes sexual crimes like sexual assault, incest, bestiality and flashing. Included in the figure was 48,158 reported rapes.

But when you apply the reporting rate they used to either of these statistics (which you shouldn’t, see below) the daily crime count does not work out to 3,600.

When you run the numbers it results in 4,447 sexual offences per day or 3,298 rapes per day.

Regional reporting rate misused

Based on their reasoning, the figure of 3,600 is wrong. However, the methodology they used is also flawed.

The reporting rate cited by Msimanga – one in 25 rapes – can’t be applied to South Africa as a whole. This is because it was a regional study of Gauteng and, as a result, the findings are not nationally representative.

Furthermore, the rape reporting rate is only for Gauteng women aged 18 years and older.

South Africa’s rape definition is very broad. It states that “any person (‘A’) who unlawfully and intentionally commits an act of sexual penetration with a complainant (‘B’), without the consent of B, is guilty of the offence of rape”. This includes the oral, anal or vaginal penetration of a person with a genital organ, anal or vaginal penetration with any object and the penetration of a person’s mouth with the genital organs of an animal.

This means that national rape statistics include male and child victims. In 2015/16, child rapes accounted for 37% of all reported rapes.

Because of this female reporting rates cannot be applied to South Africa’s rape statistics as a whole.

Unfortunately, there is no recent, nationally representative data on how many rapes are reported in South Africa. South Africa’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey is expected to provide much needed nationally representative data on sexual violence.  

Conclusion: The calculation & methodology is flawed

An art installation called SA´s Dirty Laundry claims that 3,600 rapes – or sexual offences – are committed each day in South Africa. However, their calculations are flawed.

They used a reporting rate for Gauteng women aged 18 and older. This reporting rate cannot be applied to national rape statistics, which include male and child victims.

Sexual violence is one of South Africa’s most pressing social problems but we know very little about its true extent and scale. Fabricated rape statistics shouldn’t be used to plug these holes in our knowledge.

Accurate information – no matter how limited – should be the basis of any form of advocacy.

Edited by Anim van Wyk


Additional reading

GUIDE: Rape statistics in South Africa

COMMENT: Wrong rape ‘facts’ flourish in a knowledge void

Will one in three women in SA be raped? Blow the Whistle wrong again

British paper mangles SA rape statistics

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

A response from artsits Jenny Nijenhuis and Nondumiso Msimanga:
We are happy to see any sort of coverage and discussion about the issue of rape and sexual abuse in South Africa. It is precisely this that we hoped to spark through our art installation, which includes the stringing of previously worn and donated panties on the streets of Maboneng and a performances piece by Nondumiso wearing a wedding dress of previously worn, donated panties, and is accompanied by workshops and an exhibition featuring more than 30 visual and performance artists over 10 days. 
However, we were disappointed around two issues. One was that Africa Check did not attempt to contact us, as the artists, to understand why and how we decided to use this number and the second is that it chose to ignore our carefully couched explanation of it. This includes choosing not to include from Nondumiso’s piece the phrase which directly proceeded the sentence Africa Check did use: “With experts on rape in South Africa confounded by muddled reporting systems, which make the incidents difficult to quantify..." The report also seemed to sideline the statement in the same piece which said “could have meant that up to 3,600 people a day” as well as Jenny’s statement in The Times which included that the “number 3,600 is symbolic”.
In fact our couching of the number was deliberate; we had deep and tough discussions about the research and reporting around rape, crime statistics and sexual abuse - including pouring over the numbers from several Africa Check reports as well as talking to some of the foremost experts on rape in the country about the statistics, which are varied and conflicting. In the end, we came to much the same conclusion Africa Check has come to in their detailed reporting on these issues. The numbers around crime statistics, rape and sexual abuse in South Africa are all flawed in some way and trying to practically settle on any one is near impossible. So yes, our numbers and our methodology are flawed, much like all the numbers, methodology, reporting and research around crime statics, rape and sexual abuse.
This is an artwork installation, an interpretive representation which highlights and challenges this disturbing known unknown. As artists, we move into grey areas to illuminate what others cannot or will not say. With this body of work, we are challenging a deeply entrenched violent societal issue, which also includes muddled numbers and statistics. SA’s Dirty Laundry intends to bring the secrecy and shame around rape and sexual abuse to the fore in a way that would not be ignored and which, in addition to poor handling by government and police around the issue, keeps people from reporting or talking about it, debilitating the possibility of real change. 
We hope journalists continue to engage with the topic, reporting on the research and statistics as well as the personal stories around rape and sexual abuse which plague our country. We would welcome Africa Check’s assistance in helping us come to a better number over the next 10 days and would work with you to symbolically cut or add to our washing line which extends throughout Maboneng and into SoMa Art + Space.

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Comment on this report

Comments 1
  1. By Dee Blackie

    I’m with the artists on this one, Africa Check is always quick to write inflammatory headlines undermining statistics used in articles and installations, without taking the time to engage with those concerned. The stats that they then agree to are often not that different to what has been stated and all they have achieved is the undermining of what was being communicated, which is often very important. This was a very clever installation, instead of undermining it, perhaps Africa Check should spend more time generating acurate statistics that we can all use with confidence…then they wouldn’t have to use inflammatory headlines to justify their existence!!

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