Rape in the DRC: Now complete with statistics!

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?


  • Mike says:

    What to me is shameful is that this data has been available forever, so long as I can tell. It was published in 2007 here: http://www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/FR208/FR208.pdf . Section 18.3

    More rapes in Equateur and non-war provinces, shockingly high levels of domestic and partner sexual violence etc. And all that data is downloadable — why is it only after four years that this gets a splashy press release?

    • Jina Moore says:

      Well, the authors of the study — it doesn’t appear to be live yet — crossed the DHS with another data set and did a bunch of robustness testing. So we could call the results… fortified? I’m not sure what the right language is. But stats-heads should check out the methodology of the American Journal of Public Health study, whose publication today occasioned the press release, as soon as it’s live.

      When I get hooked up to a Lexis connection, I’ll check the clips and see if there was concomitant news interest in August 2008. Care to place bets?

    • Ann Shannon says:

      Let’s get real about what is actually shameful here…

      1. The data has been ignored in the west until now;

      2. It took the study authors 4 years to be able to find a publication venue for their data.

      3. Ms. Moore has grossly exaggerated the incidence of women reporting some form of sexual violence (not necessarily all rapes) from a member of their households at 60% (rather than the 22.5% stated in the study).

      4. The snarky contempt and derision of Ms. Moore, which sidelines the import and magnitude of the human crisis involved, which does in fact scream (yes, Ms. Moore, screams are warranted here) for a response from the world community.

      5. That western donor governments have failed to engage meaningfully in the carnage of Congo: 15+ years into the crisis, they continue to shrug indifferently and have failed to even BEGIN to formulate a coordinated international effort to address THE DEADLIEST CONFLICT ON THE PLANET by using the levers available to them. (One among many: placing stringent conditions on the aid provided for development of a justice system that includes consequences for rape; ensuring FARDC troops get paid and supplied, rather than being handed a gun, sent to an assignment, and forgotten — they loot, rape and kill as they fend for themselves).

      If Congo advocates beat the drums stridently for some press when the article came out in AJPH in hopes of stimulating more national dialogue on the crisis, thank God someone bothered to. (Ms. Moore & Christian Science Monitor obviously hadn’t given these numbers any time before now.)

      What crystal ball does Ms. Moore have to impugn these advocates motives? Could it be, that after beating their heads against the wall for years and working 15 hour days, 7 days a week to raise the hue and cry to cut the death toll and the devastating, mutilating brutality of the rapes (and re-rapes) that Congolese women endure, that they were more interested in generating some ACTION by the international community rather than donations?

      Ms. Moore’s suggestion that they are after donations is utterly galling.

      FYI, Ms. Moore: the “outlier” Equateur province refers to geographical location, not the stats themselves. Equateur province is not situated in the conflict area.

      • Jina Moore says:


        I think I address most of your points in my reply to Lisa, who made similar arguments about my blog post, but I feel compelled to tell you directly that I did not, in fact, “grossly exaggerate” reports of intimate partner sexual violence. The piece of writing with which you have that argument was written by someone else.

        Thanks for reading.

  • Mike says:

    Perhaps they crossed it with another dataset — although the description http://www.stonybrookmedicalcenter.org/system/files/INCS_Congo_Brief_r6%20%281%29.pdf

    says that they took the percentage estimate and ‘crossed it’ with the population figures – which sounds more like just multiplication to me. Perhaps I’m wrong, once they post the full article.

    While they say that they did ‘multivariate logistics tests’ on the characteristics of women reporting rape, that wouldn’t be where the newsmaking base number of victims came from, nor would it show the surprising distribution between provinces — both of those findings are pretty apparent in the original study.

  • Tom says:

    I am sooooooo happy you wrote this. I was actually going to email you once I read the article to get your thoughts. Thanks for writing this Jina, great job as always.

  • Amber says:

    Criticizing reporters, journalists, the public, the research or all of the above? Bravo – we (Amber, Tia, Caryn, those who will not be named!) love your blog posting! Nuances are needed, not always appreciated and certainly every and any study has flaws. The important part is to expand knowledge, create constructive change and take a step in the right direction. We hope we have done that, despite all the misinterpretations and judgements will be made along the way. Keep up the good work!

  • Matt Jones says:

    Well stated, Jina. Difficult topic to handle–addressing the shortcomings of the stats and the spin (and our shortcomings in habitually clinging lazily to both) while not diminishing the horrible realities behind it all. Hard to impugn the reporting without being ring-fenced by political correctness. Great job.

  • lestno says:

    what’s so awkward and difficult about reporting this story is facing the implications about what it means about the population. While the Congo is the rape capital, the post-apartheid South Africa has become the murder capital of the world.
    This leads to difficult conversations about, 1) how certain populations don’t seem to be handling indepedence and self-rule; and 2) how that conflicts with liberal pieties and all the pleasant radical egalitarian lies we tell each other to get through our respective days.

    • Ann Shannon says:

      that might be true of Ms. Moore got the actual stats correct. She might even have drawn appropriate conclusions, but I doubt it.

  • Lisa Shannon says:

    In fact, Jina, the AFP blatantly violated the embargo. It angered a lot of people, and perhaps this explains your unusual decision devote so much time to attacking word choice in a press release. I’m not going to engage in debating your cynical insinuations that a new organization, staffed 100% by volunteers, put out a press release to serve non-existent fundraising efforts. It’s simply not true.

    But truth doesn’t seem to be the question of the hour for you and CSM’s Matthew Clark. Had you devoted as much time engaged reporting basics, like reading the report and fact checking, you might have found the key statistic, from which you drew so many conclusions in Clark’s article, was not correct. Clark’s article misquoted the rate of intimate partner violence at 60%, a statistic invented by a Reuters reporter who lumped together two unrelated data sets, and failed to fact check it. Yet Clark’s article was largely devoted to your interpretation of an incorrect number found only in Reuters re-prints. Huh.

    The result? A headline on the findings “obscured” in this report. Yes, it would be obscure…if its not in the report. Extrapolations about the nature of Congolese men and culture, as opposed to Congo’s culture of impunity. The kind of misinformed buzz that does real life damage to efforts to help Congo. (More on that here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/opinion/26iht-edshannon.html)

    CSM has since corrected the number to 22.5%, as it appears in the study. A word or two tweaked here or there, yet your conclusions remain essentially the same. Huh.

    I’ll make you a deal, Jina. Our volunteer press folks will work on precision in their grammar and word choice, if you work on precision in your reporting.

    • Jina Moore says:


      There seems to be a bit of confusion here. To clear up the most obvious thing, I’m not Matt Clark, and I didn’t use an incorrect statistic in my blog post. I’m also not the Reuters reporter whose article displeased you (and which I haven’t read). It sounds like there’s a good argument to be had about precision in reporting, but not with me, at least in this case. I think it’s unfair to impugn my work based on the errors of other people.

      I also didn’t say that the report “obscured” anything — I said that the report ALSO finds that “intimate partner sexual violence” (a label that comes from one of the data sets the authors used) is surprisingly high in Congo. In fact, the study says reports of “IPSV” are 1.8 times higher than reports of rape (and acknowledges, of course, that reported rates and actual rates differ due to underreporting). I also didn’t make any extrapolations about the nature of Congolese men or the country; I would agree with you that that’s problematic.

      What I did do was question the way we as a society — journalists, advocates, politicians and readers — use (revere?) numbers. I raised a sound criticism about something much broader, a criticism which even the lead author of the study here applauded (see comments above).

      Finally, for my comments on the press release: It’s a little bizarre that you think my motive for writing about the press release is that AFP violated an embargo, which definitely sucks. But that fact had no influence on what I wrote. But precision in word choice, whether your writers are volunteers or not, IS important — for the same reasons that you object to the kind of lazy writing and thinking (my characterization, not yours) about ‘the nature of Congolese men’ or other essentialist lines of thought. Sometimes precision is a matter of objective meaning — outlier is a statistical term; outlying is a geographic one; the confusion of the two (if that’s what happened) literally changes the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes it’s a matter of tone, or metaphor or style. In a document prepared for journalists to bring attention to an issue, the language used matters. I say this a lot here, but it bears repeating.

  • Jina Moore says:

    Thanks, Matt. I appreciate that you see that particular problem!

    Lestno, I’m not too sure what it would mean to “face the implications about what it means about the population.” Everything I can think of sounds awfully essentialist (“Well that’s just how they are over there, you know”), and I don’t think it’s for the sake of liberal pieties that we shouldn’t go down that road. I think it’s a failure of both logic and humanitarianism.

    On the other hand, I’m all for a more honest examination of truth claims, “radical lies” or otherwise.

    Oh, and Mike — I hear that we’re getting a take on the methodology from my favorite Great Lakes stats stud soon

  • Chris says:


    1) As for apparently a ton of things, we can blame WWII: RAND’s post-war success in data crunching brought to a boil a cauldron of statistics, damn statistics and public policy. Can see the second third of NPR’s On the Media podcast for May 13, 2011 for insight on this. Eric Beinhocker’s ‘Origins of Wealth’ brilliantly dissects this in economic history. And for sure, we could do with many a more journalist interested in the epistemology of policy and power by way of statistics.

    2) What explains the media interest in numbers as immutable facts and figures? Is it just as simple to say that these are ‘catchy’ and reader-friendly. When did humanity become data consumers? That it helps readers understand the issue doesn’t strike me as the complete explanation – any sense of the history in journalism of the turn to Empiricism as Headline?

    3) I take you as pointing to an immense-but-not-happening debate, tied in with the randomistas movement and things like the HDI: What makes us believe that so-called ‘policymakers’ (whatever that beast may be) are convincable by use of evidence and datum? This seems to ignore, at the very least, that politicians use data for (gasp) political gain: take note that Karzai in Afghanistan pushed out under-five mortality estimates showing a declining trend to argue for the efficacy of his government (we can also refer to Nato’s body count data to show surge success). In every country I’ve worked in, stories abound of how poverty statistics are under the table pending political clearance (read: massaging until the right message emerges). And in current work with governments – I couldn’t begin to explain to anyone what an ‘outlier’ is, much less why they should rely on something like the multidimensional poverty index (which spits out an equivalent number like the ‘annual rape rate’) to do anything but pretend that their country is up-to-date with the latest development debate. Maybe this is just all due to my biased LDC sample sizes. Or why I’m not an academic-teacher. Either way, what gives for this belief in data to sway policy?

  • Anon says:

    I find that careful, precise word choice is compelling, persuasive and denotes due respect for the subject at hand.

    At risk of flattery, these are among the reasons I enjoy reading Jina’s blog.

  • Ann Shannon says:

    However much one objects to our reliance on numbers and statistics today, they do tell us what the stakes are. They tell us what lies ahead if we continue with the status quo: millions more dead, millions more raped (over whatever stretch of time), if the world continues to sit on its hands and donor governments fail to exercise the levers they have. (Levers they have consistently ignored). Most people on the ground in DR Congo have known for years, and to their bones, that millions have been raped in Eastern Congo, while the UN continued to report “only” 16000 rapes a year. And, as one commenter objected, even if the data were available earlier, the figures reflected in this particular study have been universally ignored until AJPH’s publication. (Is that the researcher’s fault?)

    In the real world, research and numbers provide evidence with which to pound our politicians for more effective policies and action, they give some grounding to a public outcry for appropriate response. (Thank God we have something to work with.)

    Incredibly, people are much more concerned about bashing the researchers and those attempting to use the information to save the lives that will be lost and shattered in the future if the world continues with business as usual in relation to DR Congo. It is not that there isn’t a place for discussion, examination, challenges or complaints. But the utter contempt, and the preoccupations expressed in the above conversation, the nit-picking on one word “outlier”, making the reliance on statistics the issue — in fact, the entire focal point — while utterly ignoring the larger issue Congo’s human devastation and our failure to mount an appropriate response to it, is disheartening and a sad reflection of our shared humanity.

  • SaharaSarah says:

    It takes guts to write this piece, because it’s very easy for people to criticise you for not being ‘serious about rape’ (cause you know how fickle we can all be about that topic, eh?).

    I’m tired of the media seizing only on rape in the DRC, and portraying all of Congo as the heart of darkness, which ends up being the take-away point. Rape is terrible in DRC. I’ve been in villages that have been burnt by rebels, and see the people who fled them. But the result of the vast media attention on rape has been that sexual violence prevention has been disproportionately funded compared to other types of intervetnions in DRC (e.g. addressing livelihoods) and unfortunately in a way that’s separated it from the broader justice/rule of law/impunity issues that it is inextricably linked to. If I see another ‘sensitisation’ campaign resulting in billboards about how men shouldnt rape women, I might just scream. There is some good work being done, but equating DRC with rape doesn’t really help it.

  • George says:

    Having looked at the report, it is rather decent though the data is getting a bit old. Most of the critiques by Ms. Moore do seem rather nitpicky.

    What almost never seems to come out in all these studies of rape in the DRC is the blame which should go to the two main monsters who orchestrated the chaos which led led to almost two decades of violence [thus far]and the environment in which mass rape becomes almost a certainty: Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

    Sadly, one rarely hears our star economists denouncing the bogus claim that these two mass murderers are “development wunderkinds”.

    How is it that people with Phds from “top” universities can fail to notice that if Rwanda and Uganda did not have all their debt written off and 70+% of their budgets financed with foreign aid, that they would be in negative growth territory every year. I am sure that Greece would love to be getting similar love right now.

    Of course, this is regardless of the millions they have killed and the billions they have pillaged in the last two decades. First, Mr. Museveni came to power in Uganda through the barrel of a gun, often wielded by Mr. Kagame who was one of his intelligence chiefs. Peace negotiations were seen as a way of allowing complicit Western powers to look the other way while preparations for the final assault were made. The strategy was repeated when Mr. Kagame invaded Rwanda with the aim of restoring minority Tutsi rule. There had been no Interahamwe until then. Kagame knew that he would never achieve power through a ballot box. Again, negotiations were only an excuse for more preparations as the RPF kept breaking more ceasfire agreements and displacing more people. By the time the RPF shot down the plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi with missiles provided by Museveni, more than a third of the population was displaced by the violence and there were masses of other Hutus in the country who were fleeing the pogroms of the Tutsi dominated military in Burundi. In such an environment, bad things will inevitably happen, especially to women. Senior Tutsi commanders have admitted that they knew mass violence would occur but that was just the cost of doing business.

    By the time these two organized their invasion of the DRC [then Zaire] in 1996, their violence had spilled over into an already fragile state that was finally in the process of getting rid of Mobutu. Picking up an army of child soldiers along the way, they killed an estimated 200,000 + Hutu refugees through massacres and the effects of hounding them through the forest, and countless Congolese. When their puppet Kabila Sr. asked them to leave, they replunged the country into chaos.

    The only that made them formally leave in 2002 was the effort by the French, with the help of Colin Powell [who deserved a Nobel Prize far more than Obama] to link debt relief to their departure.

    At first there was a glimmer of hope but both Museveni and especially Kagame continued to stir things up. Kagame made sure to appoint people wanted in the assassination of Kabila Sr. to senior military and civilian posts in the East before the transition. He continued to send in weapons and cash to commanders [mostly Tutsis] whom he hoped to use to start another “rebellion”. These officers tried to assassinate the reforming military commander in South Kivu. All the other combatants who had been tentatively starting to participate in the reforms immediately felt that these were only a trap to deliver them to Kagame: no point in handing in either the AK-47 or the Hutu fighters [who were children at the time of the Genocide]. Western diplomats – especially the African American females -did nothing to stop this destabilization campaign. The World Bank was even worse: just the other day on the BBC, its Nigerian female vice president lauded Paul Kagame as a model African leader. Ban Ki Moon appointed him Co-Chair of the Millennium Development Goals Advisory Group, and Bill Clinton named him a Global Citizen of the Year. I don’t think any satirist could make up such bizarre policy.

    If you want to stop rape in the DRC, you have to first undo the effects of decades Western funded violence. Start by cutting funding to Kagame and Museveni and using it to rebuild relatively credible, disciplined security services. [Compare the resources allocated to rebuilding Afghan and Iraqi forces with those deployed in the DRC…]Then use conditionality of aid to force Kagame to dismantle his apartheid state and enter into political dialogue with the opposition. No one has clean hands, least of all Kagame and his junta. Though imperfect, it was dialogue which solved the problems in Burundi and brought home all the combatants from the DRC in a space of months. Don’t start any campaigns unless there is a massive provocation and even then keep them focussed and do no involve Kagame’s military or his Congolese proxies.

    Finally, start taking a real interest in the DRC and investing the appropriate resources. It is obscene to see all these American officials who have been so complicit in killing Africans through their support to rogue regimes complaining about China’s involvement in Africa. Besides our humanitarian duty, a galnce at the figures would show how strategically important Africa in general -and the DRC in particular- is to the developed world. Stupid governments in Canada and the US have only themselves to blame if they lose out to China.

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