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The Problem With Estimating Rape Prevalence in Asia

A major study conflated some massive countries with some very tiny ones, and that makes an entire continent seem much worse than others on women's rights.

Supporters of Republican Party of India (RPI) shout slogans during an August protest against the rape of a photo journalist by five men in Mumbai. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

The rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi last year, and the subsequent death sentence handed out to the four perpetrators, has prompted a great deal of soul-searching in India. Women’s rights have – finally – come to the forefront in a country where the concept remains curiously alien to many of its inhabitants.

In Europe, the incident has also prompted all manner of debate over the role of culture in sexual violence. While Europeans have made small but significant progress in strengthening women’s rights, other parts of the world appear to be lagging behind. To the Delhi case we might add genital mutilation, the punishment of rape victims, and female driving restrictions in Saudi Arabia. Women might have it tough in western society, but women in the developing world seemingly have it much tougher.

Last week’s verdict in India also coincided with the release of a major UN study on sexual violence against women in Asia and the Pacific. The fact the survey does not include India in its sample has nevertheless failed to dissuade commentators from drawing a parallel between its findings and the Delhi case. The shocking headline figure that “25% of the men surveyed admit to raping a partner or a stranger in their lifetime” appears to offer unequivocal confirmation that all Asian women are the victims of a deep-rooted, cultural problem.

When the figures of the UN study are broken down, however, a different picture emerges. For a start, the survey only covers a small, but diverse number of Asian countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.

Of these, the only territories in which responses to the “rape questions” were 25 percent or higher were Papua New Guinea and part of the western Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea (Papua). In both cases the number of “yes” responses from men were staggering: 43.8 percent for Papua, and an incredible 59.1 percent in Papua New Guinea.

So large were these responses, indeed, that if the two samples had not been included in the survey, the overall figure of “men admitting to rape” would have dropped to 18 percent. In itself that’s still a deeply worrying statistic, but the extent to which a combined population of some 10 million people can swing our perception of an entire continent should be enough to prompt a little caution.

Prevalence of men’s lifetime perpetration of physical and/or sexual partner violence, by site. (Partners for Prevention)

More problematic than this, however, is that simply pushing together a number of independent samples into an aggregate figure is largely meaningless. Even if we were to ignore the fact that China has a completely different culture to Bangladesh, which in turn has a completely different culture from Papua New Guinea (and so on), when you compile independent samples, without weighting, all you generate is statistical noise.

Let’s take two figures from the survey as an example: the number of women in China who state they have been the victims of some form of sexual violence during their lives, and the respective figure in Papua New Guinea. In China’s case, the figure is 14 percent, while in Papua New Guinea the figure is (no surprise) an utterly horrendous 58.1 percent. If you were to push these two statistics together and split the difference, you might be forgiven for thinking that the number of women who experience sexual violence in both China and Papua New Guinea combined is around 36 percent.

However without weighting the size of each population that would be a hopelessly misleading conclusion. China has a population of around 1.35 billion, while Papua New Guinea’s population sits at about 7 million. If you were to actually combine the populations in reality then the fact that Papua New Guinea is dwarfed by the size of China would result in the figure still being roughly 14 percent. Papua New Guinea is so small in comparison that its evidently dreadful prevalence of sexual violence would barely make an imprint on the aggregate figure.

At this point you might be tempted to throw your arms into the air and claim this is irrelevant. Even if the survey’s figures have been misquoted (through no fault of the study itself I might add), arguing about the exact percentages with something as abhorrent as sexual violence is a bit besides the point: 14 percent of women having to live through rape and sexual assault is still 14 percent too many.

You’d be correct to say this, however if we’re going to derive a conclusion that rape and sexual violence are linked to a continent’s culture, then we have to be absolutely certain that’s what the figures suggest.

In fact, when you consider statistics in other parts of the world, the figures are no less depressing. According to the International Violence against Women Survey in 2007, for instance, 35 percent of women in the Czech Republic indicated that they had experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Across other European countries the findings were barely any better: 34 percent in Sweden, 28 percent in Denmark, 25 percent in Switzerland, 23.7 percent in Italy, 17 percent in Poland, and 13 percent in Germany. There are difficulties in directly comparing the results from different studies, and it’s fair to say that the UN study uses a stricter definition of “sexual violence” than the European examples, but these statistics are no less shocking when taken at face value.

Undoubtedly, certain cultures do increase the likelihood of sexual violence taking place. At the very least, the UN study demonstrates that many Asian countries still possess extremely weak legislation for dealing with violence against women. But drawing a false distinction between the cultures of Europe, and the supposedly inferior cultures of Asia, is incredibly dangerous.

It’s not just dangerous in the sense that it promotes complacency about the widespread sexual violence European women still face; it also feeds into an unsavoury dialogue which seeks to portray half the world as upholding fundamentally primitive cultures. It’s particularly galling when this is done largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence, and a statistic which says more about the population of a few Pacific Islands than it does about the continent of Asia as a whole.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

The Conversation