Is a child raped every three minutes in South Africa?
This recurring claim has been repeated at least three times in the past month – at a high-level international crime conference in Cape Town, in an opinion piece on a leading news website and in a speech by a senior Western Cape politician.
The national manager of child abuse charity Matla A Bana, Monique Strydom, told delegates at the 35th Annual Crime Stoppers International Conference that “according to statistics a child is raped every three minutes in South Africa”.
Then a spokesperson for the NGO Sonke Gender Justice, Czerina Patel, wrote in a column: “A 2009 report by trade union Solidarity indicated that a child is raped every three minutes in South Africa, and still Sonke and other organisations are forced to mount this nationwide advocacy campaign in order to try to push our government to real action.”
Most recently, Western Cape education minister, Debbie Schäfer, stated that a “report compiled by Solidarity Helping Hand said that while there were about 60 cases of child rape reported in South Africa every day, more than 88% of child rapes were never reported”.
The claim has been repeated over the years by the South African Medical Research Council, The Witness, the International Business Times, Vice, the BBC and The Guardian. The statistic has also been referred to by News24 and Health24, and included in a text book.
But is the claim correct? What evidence is there to support it?
‘The scourge of our society’
The 2009 report that is so often cited as the source of the claim was commissioned by Helping Hand, a charity wing of the civil rights organisation Solidarity.
Titled Kindermishandeling – Die skandvlek van ons samelewing (Child abuse – The scourge of our society), it is no longer available on their websites but can still be found on the Internet Archive. The report was written by a freelance journalist, De Wet Potgieter, and was intended to raise awareness and provide information about child abuse.
It stated: “The South African National Youth Victimisation Survey of 2005 found that only 11.3% of child rapes are reported to the [South African Police Service]. This means that if 60 child rapes are reported every day, in reality 531 cases take place. That is one child that is raped every three minutes!”
Outdated, flawed data
So are 60 child rape cases reported per day in South Africa? The Helping Hand report referred to the police’s crime statistics for April to December 2007, which showed that 16 068 rapes involving children had been reported in that time – around 60 child rape cases per day.
But the following year the police discovered a serious flaw in the data. According to the police’s 2008/ 2009 annual report, the 16 068 figure included rape victims who were older than 18 but younger than 19. This means the number of child rape cases that Helping Hand based their claim on included an unknown number of cases where the victims were not minors.
Since 2008, the police have not reported the number of child rape cases separately in their annual report. Instead, incidents of child rape are lumped together under the sexual offences category that includes rape and sexual assault of all genders and ages, prostitution, and acts such as flashing.
So how many children are raped every day in South Africa? After a month of persistent requests, the police finally provided disaggregated data:
- 2012/ 13 – 20 702
- 2013/ 14 – 18 524
This shows that reported child rapes decreased from around 57 cases per day in 2012/ 13 to almost 51 in 2013/ 14. But as rape is notoriously underreported, a decrease in reported rapes is not necessarily a sign that sexual violence is decreasing or that police interventions are effective.
Broad question about sexual assault
Researchers carry out victimisation surveys to more accurately estimate the real prevalence of crime. They do so by interviewing a representative sample of people – of a certain region, gender or age, or a whole country – about their experience of crime.
The victimisation study that Helping Hand used for the statement “if 60 child rapes are reported every day, in reality 531 cases take place” was carried out by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention in 2005. Around 4 400 respondents between the ages of 12 and 22 were asked if they had been victims of crimes ranging from theft and assault to robbery, house breaking, sexual assault and car hijacking.
According to this survey, only 11.3% of sexual assaults were reported to the police. To establish this, the respondents were asked a very broad question: “Has anyone ever forced you to have sex; kissed, or touched your body without your consent; tried to insert their penis or other foreign object into places you were not happy with; forced you to touch them in places you were not happy with; or forced you to behave in any other sexual way?”
The Helping Hand report interpreted this result as the rate at which child rape cases are reported. But the assumption was wrong because the question did not distinguish between rape and a broad range of sexual crimes.
‘No statistics out there’
Unfortunately there are no victimisation studies about child rape available in South Africa at present, the director of the Medical Research Council’s gender and health research unit, Rachel Jewkes, told Africa Check.
Patrick Burton, executive director at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and co-author of the 2005 National Youth Victimisation Survey, said: “We don’t have nationally representative data on [the underreporting of child rape]. We just don’t have the data for incidences, prevalence or ages. There aren’t any statistics out there that show that a child is raped every three minutes.”
According to Burton, the centre and the University of Cape Town are undertaking a national study of child and adolescent abuse in South Africa, and hope to release the findings in March next year. The results, together with police statistics, could allow us to form a more accurate picture.
But then the police must also break down the reported cases of child rapes by ages and areas, the manager of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) crime and justice information hub, Lizette Lancaster, said.
Instead, police only very reluctantly share the data that is readily available on their sophisticated Crime Administration System, the head of the governance, crime and justice division of the ISS, Gareth Newham, pointed out before.
Conclusion: the statistic is based on flawed data and calculations
The claim that “a child is raped every three minutes in South Africa” is based on flawed data and calculations.
At the time, Helping Hand thought 60 cases of child rape were being reported per day – as that was what police statistics in the 2007/ 2008 annual report showed. But it was likely an overstatement because the police subsequently discovered the statistics included cases of people older than 18, but not yet 19.
To estimate how many child rapes took place without being reported to the police, Helping Hand then incorrectly applied the underreporting rate for a broad range of sexual offences to the police data.
Helping Hand’s executive director, Danie Brink, told Africa Check that “the statement … cannot be substantiated by or derived from the data that was used to arrive at the statement”. He said that the organisation became aware of the error a few years ago and stopped circulating the report. The most recent police data showed that almost 51 cases of child rape were reported per day in the previous financial year. But many more could be committed without being recorded.
The findings of a new comprehensive study – due early next year – will hopefully shed more light on the extent of this terrible crime.