A few days ago, I got a press release about Congo, the first line of which is this:
"A new study shows that women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been raped at a rate 26 times higher than previously thought. The shockingly high number is equivalent to 1,152 women raped every day, 48 raped every hour, or four women raped every five minutes."
Okay, that's a lie. The first line was an embargo on talking about this study until 3 p.m. today; the next line was contact info; and the next was this handy little advisory: "Note to editors: Photos of Congolese women who have been affected by the conflict are available upon request." (Do we give grace points for having the good sense not to offer, upon request, "images of women who had been raped"? Or for avoiding exclamation points?)
The press release reads a little desperate; you can almost feel it begging for a journalist's distracted attention by getting as many numbers in front of her as possible. May but one sound horrifying enough to merit a few column inches!
- "More than 400,000 women ages 15 to 49 were raped across all provinces of the DR Congo during a 12-month period in 2006 and 2007, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health."
- "The number of women raped at least once in the eastern conflict area of North Kivu—67 per 1,000—is more than double the national average of 29 per 1,000. That means a woman in certain parts of the Congo is 134 times more likely to be raped than a woman in the United States, which has an annual rape rate of 0.5 per 1,000 women."
- "In fact, the outlier Equateur province showed rates higher than the conflict-affected South Kivu and Orientale provinces (65 in Equateur to 44 and 38 respectively). This is a new and highly significant finding."
Let's be clear: These numbers are horrifying. It is obviously awful that women have experienced violence at this level, whether it is one or 10 or 26 or 26000 times worse than we thought it was. There isn't much continuum of bad here. It's just awful. And I readily concede that journalists are no one's friend in avoiding sensationalism; we invented the sound bite, after all.
But here we are, on the brink of epistemological disaster: a press release about something incredibly difficult if not impossible to quantify, written by an advocacy group and designed to appeal to journalists.
There are awkward tone problems. Maybe there's no good way to say this stuff without committing all kinds of tonal offenses -- "annual rape rate" is never going to not sound weird. Though I tend to think that among the lessons of the crime committed against Lara Logan and the ensuing chatter is the suggestion that "likelihood of rape" isn't exactly the kind of index -- or language -- we want to be using.
There are collisions of precision and metaphor. For example, that last bullet point: A statistical "outlier" cannot, by definition, be "significant." (And there aren't really gradations of statistical significance -- no place for valued language like "highly" -- but that's maybe a bit of a fussy quibble.)
And there are, alas, meta-metaphor problems. The only way, apparently, to make it clear how bad rape in Congo is is to turn it, by metaphor, into cancer. In that part of the press-release-mimicking-news-journalism in which an outside expert's voice legitimizes the point being made, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Director (and MD/MPH) Michael VanRooyen says, "Rape in the DRC has metastasized amid a climate of impunity, and has emerged as one of the great human crises of our time."
I've learned, in part from some of HHI's staffers, that there are important public health effects of mass sexual violence on communities. But "metastisized"? Why not "rape in the DRC takes place amid," or "rape is committed in" or even the admittedly more "advocerial" "rape benefits from"?
Is this another fussy quibble? Maybe. But the rape-as-cancer metaphor seems to me to subtly reinforce the idea that Congo, by which most readers ultimately targeted by this press release will understand "allofAfrica," is a diseased place -- contaminated, dirty, terminal. I doubt that's what the authors of the press release (or VanRooyen himself) were going for, but at the risk of repeating myself, language has consequences.
Numbers, blasted numbers
The fact of the matter is, we need numbers. It's probably not worth teasing out the chicken from the egg here -- do policymakers want them because they really are the best barometers of truth, or the best measure of utility, or because they see them all the time in really stunning newspaper leads? Do journalists want them because news, narrowly defined, is the making of policy, and so we've adopted the metrics of the men (mostly, alas, at least in the US) who make the policy? Do advocates use them only because the politicians and the journalists demand them?
Do we all -- policymakers and advocates, journalists and, yes, readers -- feed the beast by demanding numbers for any truth claim, even when the numbers themselves -- when taken out of context, or simply when wrung out of untenable data sets -- are untruths?
Is this too cynical for you? Me too. It's beside the point, because numbers circulate, whether they're true or not. Sometimes, they are promulgated by people who don't think too hard about whether they're good numbers or not, or whether good numbers can be wrongly promulgated. (If you don't believe me, read this book.)
But it also is the point. The press release I'm writing about here was embargoed until 3 pm, EST, today. The embargo was ignored by AFP, so then AP had to play wire-competition catch up. American news organizations get more AP than they do AFP, so when the AP hit the wires, the headlines -- from HuffPo, Google News, the Daily Beast, and others -- hit Twitter. And, lest we all let ourselves off the hook here, some of you retweeted, shocked by the Twitter-ready but otherwise meaningless breakdown: "...four women raped every five minutes."
I can see why. It's a clean, easy, poignant number. Because it's tidied up.
It doesn't include the qualifier, "based on data collected in 2007 about the prior 12 months." It implies an ongoing present -- five years after the violations, and four years after the data was collected. (If you dispute the implication, check out the social media reaction to the study, which latches right on to that statistic and brings it more forcefully into the present tense than perhaps the study's authors intended.)
The study's authors took the average of the interval of estimates on rapes from two data sets they used -- "407397 to 433785" -- to get a number that reduces ("divide by 365, divide by 24, divide by 60") to .80 women raped every minute, but since none of us can imagine eight-tenths of a woman, we can multiply it by five and get a nice round, "four women every five minutes."
Aka, a soundbite. But it does it add much beyond advocacy ticker-tape to say that the number of women raped in the 12 months preceding a 2007 survey -- in a country where (according to the study) the only statistically significant correlations for rape are a woman's age and where precisely she lives lives -- reduces to four women raped, across the entire country, every five minutes? Math teachers everywhere looking for a human rights rubric for fractions might rejoice in the reduction, but of what other use is it?
Well, I can think of two, themselves probably predictors of each other: Headlines. And fundraising.
Filling in the data gaps
The question of conflict-related statistics in Congo is fraught with difficulties, and occasionally hot controversies. The study itself does a service to policymakers, journalists and others who want a number -- in part by giving us a handy table of all the people who've tried to make a number before, which includes summaries of their methodologies and results, and in part by working doggedly to get a better, more robust national number than anyone has before.
The authors are social scientists, so they're not making an argument -- or much of one. They rightly deflect policy prescriptions, but they do push for one thing -- and ironically, that's a correction of the narrow advocacy/journalism narrative of rebel-rape.
"Taken together, our results suggest that future policies and programs should also strengthen their focus on abuse within families and eliminate the acceptance of impunity surrounding sexual violence while maintaining and enhancing efforts to stop militias from perpetrating rape," the study says. (Not long ago, I wrote about HHI's report with data released in 2010 from South Kivu, a hotspot of rebel-rape truth and story, that would also support this focus shift.)
The study itself does a lot more than the press release admits. Its real "story," if I can impose that on the research, is going to get buried: that sexual violence by intimate partners (aka, husbands) is surprisingly high in Congo, even when compared -- by data from the same survey, collected by the same methodology -- with other countries in the region.
So: Which one of the four women raped in the last five minutes is that truth about?