Rape Reporting During War: Why the Numbers Don't Mean What You Think They Do

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Reports of sexual violence during the ongoing unrest in Libya have captured headlines across the world. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, some have alleged, were given Viagra to facilitate their rape of hundreds, if not thousands, of victims. Recently, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both expressed outrage at what was apparently a purposeful campaign. Yet recent reports by the U.N. and by advocacy groups shed doubt on these claims. Amnesty International, for example, has been unable to locate a single rape victim, or even anyone who knows a victim.

As the veracity of stories about sexual violence in Libya came into question, the American Journal of Public Health published a study estimating that the prevalence of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was far worse than previously documented. The article estimated that between 2006 and 2007 more than 400,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49 were raped during the war there -- 26 times the U.N.'s official count.

So what are we to make of these two cases -- a possible exaggeration of rape in Libya and a gross underestimation of it in the DRC? Wartime sexual violence has rightly been called a hidden epidemic; in truth, we know very little about its actual magnitude and impact. Reports of rape are increasingly common in countries wracked by conflict, such as Colombia, the DRC, East Timor, Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, and Sudan, but no one knows what the relationship is between increased reports and increased rape. Even in peacetime, sexual violence is severely and unevenly underreported. Beyond prevalence, patterns of where, when, and by whom rape is committed -- not to mention why it is committed -- are even less clear. War exponentially worsens these problems. As a result, estimates of rape in prominent conflicts are often unreliable.