Sexual violence might be a continental epidemic
by Gwynne Dyer
Keeping a file of random clippings is an old-fashioned thing to do, but sometimes it offers you unexpected connections. Sometimes it’s a connection that you don’t even want to see. But there it is, so what are you going to do about it?
In June, 2009, South Africa’s Medical Research Council published a report which said that over a quarter of South African men — 27.6 per cent — have raped somebody. Almost half of those men admitted to raping two or three women or girls. One in 13 of the self-confessed rapists said they had raped at least 10 victims.
The numbers are astonishing and horrifying, but on the assumption that at least a few of the interviewees were ashamed, or were afraid that their admission might later be used against them, those numbers are also probably low. As well, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, where the study was conducted, are among South Africa’s poorer provinces, but as there is no self-evident link between poverty and rape, it follows that other parts of the country would produce similar results.
The study was a model of statistical rigour. It used a Statistics South Africa model of one male interviewee in each of 1,738 households across all racial groups and income levels in both rural and urban areas. Half of the men interviewed were under 25 years old; 70 per cent of the rapists had forced a woman or girl into sex for the first time when they were under 20.
The researchers weren’t even trying to count South Africa’s rapists. The study was called “Understanding Men’s Health and Use of Violence: Interface of Violence and HIV in South Africa,” and it was really investigating the linkage, if any, between sexual violence and the spread of HIV. It turned out there was none — but that the actual amount of rape going on is completely off the scale even for an extremely violent society like South Africa.
I found another report claiming that 40 per cent of South African women can expect to be raped during their lives, but I had nothing to add to the discussion, so I just filed the information away. Then last November I saw a report in The Guardian about a study carried out in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in which 34 per cent of the men interviewed — over a third — admitted to rape.
That’s a war zone, of course, and it may not be representative of the Congo as a whole. But I did begin to wonder how widespread this phenomenon was, and I came across a study in the African Journal of Reproductive Health dating back to 2000, in which 20 per cent of a thousand women interviewed in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (hardly a war zone) said they had been raped. Only one-tenth of those rapes were reported to the police.
And in early May came a report from the Rwanda government’s Gender Monitoring Office; a survey of more than 2,000 schoolchildren across the country revealed that 43 per cent of them were aware of other pupils being raped. Teachers were allegedly among the chief offenders.
“If teachers are responsible for the problems of teenage pregnancies, that is a serious problem as they’re supposed to protect them,” said Education Minister Vincent Biruta. But Katherine Nichol, who works at Plan Rwanda, an NGO that promotes girls’ education in rural areas, was willing to go a little further. “We only know the tip of the iceberg of this issue here in Rwanda,” she said.
That’s the question, really. Are these reports just anomalies and exceptions? After all, South Africa is very violent, the eastern Congo is a war zone, Rwandans have been traumatized by the genocide of 1994, and Tanzania is — well, maybe just an anomaly. Or are they the tip of a continent-wide iceberg?
Rapes happen everywhere, not just in Africa, and it’s especially bad in war zones. There was practically no German woman left unraped in the eastern parts of the country in 1944-45 when the Soviet army swept in.
Armies seem to have a special problem with sexual violence even when there isn’t a war. Last year, there were 26,000 reported cases of sexual violence against women in the U.S. military — and the Pentagon believes up to 80 per cent of sexual assaults go unreported. Indeed, a female soldier in the U.S. military is more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted by one of her own colleagues than injured in battle.
But the subject today is Africa, and the few statistics available suggest that there is an astoundingly high number of rapes in several widely separated countries. So what is needed now is more and better statistics. Is the proportion of rapists among the male population in the western Congo (which is more or less at peace) much lower than in the East, or not? Are Kenya’s official rape statistics (over 300 women per week) accurate, or should they be multiplied by 10 to account for non-reporting, as in Tanzania? Are the true numbers for rapes different in Muslim countries in Africa (all the ones mentioned above are predominantly Christian), or are they really the same?
Nobody will win a popularity contest by gathering these statistics, but hundreds of millions of African women have the right to know the answer.
And when the scale and nature of the problem is clear, there needs to be urgent, decisive action.