Thursday, 12 May 2011

Journalists downplay rape prevalence in DR Congo

[trigger warning]

Several news sources are reporting on this study on rape prevalence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The headlines are all along the lines of "48 rapes per hour" or "1100 rapes a day". Here's the BBC article.

My first thought on reading the headline? "That's really low." Somewhere between study, press release and news article, they've lost some really important details.

The "shocking" figure they quote is - while absolutely terrible - only a fraction of the real problem.

The UK is a similar size to the DRC, in terms of population (62 million and 67 million respectively). Going from British Crime Survey data, my low bound for the number of rapes annually in the UK is around 200,000. It's a low estimate because the BCS data doesn't cover children or people aged 60 or over, but it gives a rough estimate.

The reporting claims the figure for the DRC to be around 400,000. Worse, even accounting for the slightly higher population, but not much worse.

"UK: 20 rapes every hour, study finds" would be an equally accurate headline (and perhaps expressing it like that might shock a few people into action).

The figure for the DRC is considerably higher - not just twice as bad as the UK

  1. The study, according to the article, only covers women and girls aged 15-49. Like the BCS, that misses out a lot of people (and, indeed, the authors of the study acknowledge this)
  2. The figure of just over 400,000 is not how many rapes occurred, but how many women were raped in the last 12 months. Like the BCS, it doesn't measure multiple victimisation. Given that the lifetime estimate is only four times higher, there must be a lot of multiple victimisation going on.
  3. They also note a figure of over 3 million women experiencing "intimate partner sexual violence", though the abstract doesn't say whether this is lifetime or annual. It's not quite clear how this figure relates to the initial count, but from the Guardian reporting it seems to be a separate figure, and includes yet more rapes. Not at all surprising - but imagine how much better the UK's figures would look if they only counted stranger rapes; now think about what that implies for the DRC figures.
  4. Unlike the BCS, the figures this study were based on don't appear to have had the same effort put into avoiding reporting stigma (Dr Peterman explicitly mentions this as a cause of underestimation).

Add all that together and this study is still a massive underestimate.

It's also a big increase on previous estimates - which says a lot about those estimates.

That rate is significantly higher than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes reported in one year by the UN.

If anyone at the UN actually believed that figure - again, only about twice the number reported in the UK - to be remotely accurate, they would have been congratulating the DRC on its successful strategies against sexual violence. Clearly, no-one actually did - the UN staff are not naive! But again, it's measuring something completely different - and the DRC government points out that the difference between the two figures is due to reporting and collection, not a change in the number of actual rapes.

But I don't think the journalists get just how high rape prevalence is in countries like the UK, or they wouldn't print things like (BBC):

The highest numbers of rapes were found in war-ravaged North Kivu, where an average of 67 women out of 1,000 have been raped at least once.

...which, back of envelope, makes North Kivu noticeably safer than the UK. Or it could be - as the authors of the study state - a severe underestimate.

If UK journalists - and the public as a whole - were actually aware how many rapes took place in their own country, then they might not have to have the obvious underestimates here pointed out to them - underestimates that make the DRC's problems with rape look nowhere near as bad as they actually are.

In an effort to get the reporting to be more accurate, here's the message I sent to BBC Complaints - I also sent a similar one to the Guardian regarding their article (to I didn't even get into the extra 3 million, since I wanted to keep the initial complaint short. I'll mention it if they get back to me.

Dear Editors,

Your article reported that "A study by US scientists has concluded that an average of 48 women and girls are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo.". The study actually concludes something far worse than this - the figure of 400,000 a year from which the hourly rate is derived is the number of women and girls raped at least once in the last twelve months. Dividing this into hours forgets that many will be raped far more than just once. Furthermore it ignores the statements made - and reported on - by Dr Amber Peterman that the estimate from their study is likely to be a significant underestimate.

This becomes obvious when you consider the comparable rate for the UK. The British Crime Survey finds that around 70,000 people between the ages of 16 and 59 have been raped at least once in the last twelve months. Studies on multiple victimisation suggest that many rape victims are raped more than once, for an estimate of around 200,000 rapes each year in the UK - or around 20 every hour.

Similarly, your article gives a lifetime victimisation rate for the worst area - North Kivu - of 67 in 1,000 - a rate that is actually somewhat less bad than the equivalent rate for women in the UK.

I'm not suggesting that rape in the UK is as prevalent as it is in the DRC - though "UK: 20 rapes every hour, studies show" is a horrifying statistic in its own right - but by doing a simple division your headline and article actually hides the true scale of the problem in the DRC.

Please correct the article - especially the headline and lede paragraph - to better reflect the original study.

Yours faithfully