FP Explainer

Why Is It So Hard to Identify the World’s Rape Capital?

How it's possible for Botswana and Sweden to top a global ranking of rape.

In the new March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Laura Heaton investigates a 2010 incident of mass rape committed over a period of four days by Congolese rebels in Luvungi, a small town in the country's war-torn east. As horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and children came flooding out of the town at the time, the U.N.'s special representative for sexual violence in conflict labeled the Democratic Republic of the Congo the "rape capital of the world" -- a designation reinforced by the media. "Forty-eight women raped every hour in Congo," a 2011 article in the Guardian declared, going on to call Congo "the centre of rape as a weapon of war" and "the worst place on Earth to be a woman."

But are these superlatives warranted? There is no arguing that rape -- particularly as an act of aggression -- is an egregious problem in the country. But is Congo really the worst offender? And if not Congo, what is the world's real rape capital? It turns out that's pretty impossible to determine. 

Going by the United Nations' widely referenced survey of crime statistics around the world, the five countries with the highest per capita rates of rape -- defined by the U.N. as "sexual intercourse without valid consent" based on police records -- are a varied bunch: Botswana, Sweden, Nicaragua, Grenada, and the United Kingdom (the organization does not have data on Congo). But before we go labeling Sweden or Botswana the world's epicenter of rape, a closer look at the ranking reveals the staggering complexity behind the numbers. 

The first problem in cross-country comparisons of crime rates in general -- and rape in particular -- is definitional. What exactly constitutes rape? Statistics tend to skew upward in places with broader, more inclusive laws. In Sweden, for example, each instance of sexual violence is catalogued as its own crime. "When a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events," one Swedish sociologist explained to the BBC. "In many other countries it would just be one record." In Congo, by contrast, the World Health Organization found that police did not record reported cases of sexual violence in the absence of a witness who could testify to the use of force. 

More generally, the definitional limitations of international crime statistics have contributed to distorted results about the world's "kidnapping capitals." Australia, for instance, leads the pack, not because masked men are nabbing people off the streets left and right but because under the country's penal system, custody battles where one parent objects to the other spending time with the child counts as "kidnapping." 

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes has put together a framework to address these difficulties that makes a stark classificatory distinction between rape as a sexual act and rape as an act of war or aggression, meaning statistically these would be catalogued as separate crimes. The approach implies that rape in Congo, which is often conflict-based, is not really comparable to the kind of sexual violence faced by women in, say, Sweden. But Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege project, wonders if such a distinction is useful. "In war, women's bodies are used to send a message to the enemy: We can conquer you, humiliate you, control you," she told FP. "I don't know that that's terribly different from the way men who violate women think about us in peacetime. Rape is an act of power and control." 

Even more vexing than these categorical challenges are the statistical ones. When it comes to cases of rape, how and what data is gathered can have a significant impact on our ability to make valid cross-country inferences. The U.N. data, for example, is based on criminal reports of rape, which means that factors such as a well-organized, sympathetic outreach program; an efficient system for reporting transgressions; a highly competent police force; and women's knowledge of their own rights -- all desirable things for a country to have -- could produce a higher number of reported rapes in certain countries, making these places seem worse off than their less well-equipped neighbors. Having a high incidence of rape is never a good thing, but the fact that women in countries like Sweden report sexual acts against them -- and that those accounts are taken seriously -- shows that the system, in part, is working. 

Conversely, in India, where large swathes of the population live in rural areas with low literacy levels, criminal records may not be the best reflection of the prevalence of rape. According to the U.N., India ranked 49th out of 60 countries with available data in 2010. Only recently has India's rape problem received international attention -- fueled not by crime statistics but by a deadly gang rape in December, which has prompted more victims to step forward and discuss their own experiences. 

The U.N. study acknowledges its own limitations and suggests surveying as an alternative method for collecting criminal statistics. But these "victimization surveys" come with their own host of problems; everything from the format to the skill of the interviewer can skew the results. Amelia Hoover Green, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, points to one example from the United States, noting that a 2009 study found that changing survey wording led to a tenfold increase in reports of forcible rape on college campuses in the past year. When applied to the total number of female college students in the country, those results translated into the difference between 14,000 and 140,000 rapes. Compare that range to the official criminal record -- the FBI catalogued 459 forcible rape cases at U.S. universities that year -- and the volatility of these numbers becomes clear (and then imagine replicating these quantitative problems on a global scale). 

A final factor contributing to the fuzzy math around sexual violence is the most ubiquitous and damaging issue plaguing rape statistics: victim silence. "Women have very little incentive to come forward," Wolfe explains. "Police have been known to re-rape, bribe, or make fun of rape survivors globally. Husbands have divorced or cast out women from Syria to Sudan to Guatemala when they've discovered their wives have been raped." Despite the physical and psychological horrors of rape, victims' lives can be made worse if they disclose their experiences. 

But the converse is also true. In rare instances, there are benefits to being identified as a rape victim that could motivate a person to falsely come forward. Heaton provides a compelling account of this in Luvungi, where sexual violence against women attracted the dollars and attention of international donors, perhaps creating "perverse" incentives. One study described examples of this problem in other countries like Colombia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where reporting rape entitled victims to free medical attention in the wake of catastrophes. These incentives are undoubtedly helpful in encouraging victims who would otherwise remain silent to come forward, but they also speak to the difficulty of using health records as a basis for grand, sweeping claims about the prevalence of rape.

On the one hand, these rare instances of over-reporting can undermine the efforts of international organizations to be taken seriously. On the other, the precise figures may be less significant than what lies behind them. As Wolfe cautions, "With numbers like these -- even if they were exaggerated -- why would we worry about over-reporting? Isn't the violation of a single woman too much?"

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/AFP/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Ice Removal

How easy is it to fence $50 million worth of stolen diamonds?

By now, the diamond thieves who pulled off a brazen $50 million heist on the tarmac of Brussels Airport are the most wanted men in Europe. They're most likely lying low somewhere, waiting for the heat to die down. Soon enough, though, they'll want to turn that loot into cash. But how does one actually go about fencing $50 million in stolen diamonds? In fact, it's easier than you might think.

Clearly, these guys planned their Feb. 18 heist well -- it was fast and efficient, and it employed minimal violence in intercepting the diamonds at a moment of vulnerability. Given their professionalism, it's quite likely that they planned just as carefully what to do with the loot.

I know a little bit about what they might have been thinking, from investigating the largest diamond heist in history, the 2003 burglary of $500 million in stones in Antwerp, Belgium, by a group of Italian thieves known as the School of Turin.

Let's assume these new crooks don't already have someone in mind on whom they intend to unload all the diamonds. They'll have to sell them slowly to avoid drawing attention, but that's OK, as diamonds don't lose value with the passage of time. The first thing to do with all those stolen diamonds is to divide them up into polished stones, rough stones, and anything in between. Polished stones are diamonds that look like those sold in jewelry stores, except, of course, they're loose -- not yet on a ring or necklace. Rough diamonds look nothing like what you'd find at Tiffany's. They generally resemble two pyramids stuck together at their bases with a frosted surface, like sea glass. The in-between stones, those that are partially polished, will be the toughest ones to unload. There's no real market in such stones, and they would need to be taken to an unscrupulous polisher to finish the job. But because these stones were leaving Antwerp (one of the world's polishing centers) for Switzerland, there are likely to be few if any partially polished diamonds in this stolen $50 million haul.

The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones' identifying characteristics. Some of the polished diamonds will have signature marks on them, such as tiny, almost invisible, laser engravings. These can be removed. But some polished diamonds have laser-inscribed marks on their girdle, commonly used for branding purposes: Canadian diamonds often feature a maple leaf or polar bear, while De Beers uses its distinctive "Forevermark." Such brands by themselves are not a concern; in fact, removing them might hurt the resale value of a stone. But the problem facing the thieves is that these markings often include a serial number used to identify a specific stone.

Thus, eventually someone might check this serial number and find out that a particular stone was reported stolen. A discovery like this would be a huge break for the dedicated diamond police squad in Antwerp -- a force that solely handles diamond-related crime and is leading up the investigation into this heist. And it has a difficult task ahead of it.

"Dealing in stolen diamonds is relatively easy, if you know where to go with those diamonds," Patrick Peys, one of Antwerp's crack diamond detectives, once told me. "Unfortunately, we know that stolen diamonds can be sold. If you get it for a cheap price, and you are sure that they can't be identified, you get profit. And as always, there will be people in the diamond business that want to make an easy profit."

One thing working in the thieves' favor is that in the complex, busy world of the gem trade, a single diamond can trade hands multiple times in a single day. And not everyone keeps clear records. By the time someone realizes that they're in possession of a stolen stone, it could have passed through dozens of hands, leaving the trail too cold for police to be able to track it back to the original trader who bought it off the thieves.

Another thing going for the thieves is that the individual marking of stones is still rather rare. Yes, diamond-grading laboratories offer services that will inscribe a unique number on a diamond to match that polished stone to a report detailing its attributes. But it's far more common to simply keep a diamond in a transparent, sealed, tamper-proof case along with a given report that notes cut, clarity, color, carat weight, and other details. Moreover, even the best labs don't note or keep track of any unique identifier such as an optical fingerprint of polished stones. There are indeed services geared toward retail clients that will analyze diamonds and keep extremely detailed records for insurance or identification purposes. But these kinds of services aren't used in Antwerp's wholesale diamond trade.

In fact, all the thieves need to do to launder the diamonds is to remove the inscriptions on the polished stones. Then, for a small fee, they could bring them back to one of the many labs in Antwerp, or any other diamond-trading city, where they'd be given a new report with a new number. Anyone could walk in off the street with a few million dollars in polished diamonds and ask for them to be graded. Unless the person were acting very strangely, it is unlikely anyone would find this suspicious. This is a business in which millions of dollars in stones are commonly traded.

Yes, it might be a risk walking back into the lion's den, but the odds are very high that there were few unique, identifiable stones among those stolen this week. The vast majority of diamonds traded in Antwerp are in the 1-to-2-carat range and on the white end of the spectrum -- without truly distinct colors or imperfections. Large stones, especially ones in desirable colors such as red or blue, would be harder to sell as the danger would be high that someone would recognize them. If the thieves are in possession of such a stone, they would do well to take it someplace far from Antwerp, where no one would recall having seen it before.

But even then, it's not hard to smuggle stones across borders. A million dollars in diamonds could fit into a cigarette pack. This week's entire haul, some $50 million worth, could be carried by one strong man. And you could easily turn some of the stones into jewelry and wear them right through customs anywhere in the world. There still isn't a dog on Earth that can sniff out a diamond. If you were looking to get rid of the large and fancy-colored stones, the best markets would be in Dubai and Hong Kong.

The rough diamonds will be a little more difficult to move. While anyone can bring in a polished diamond to a lab to be tested and then get a rough idea of its worth, a rough diamond needs an experienced eye. While dealers routinely trade polished stones over the Internet, one needs to actually see and hold a rough to value it. For the thieves, this means that it will be hard for them to know whether the person they're selling to is paying a decent price for these stones. Either they're prepared to sell them cheap, or more likely, they'll have an insider and expert helping to appraise the rough stones.

There's one more little hassle for the thieves when it comes to moving rough diamonds: The stones are supposed to be accompanied by Kimberley Process certificates attesting that they are not conflict stones, or blood diamonds. Such certificates are easy to forge or obtain fraudulently. Crossing borders with customs, such as those into Switzerland, requires having such certificates for all rough stones. These thieves won't be. There certainly are buyers for rough stones without proper paperwork, but selling to them would probably involve giving them a bit of a discount, as it is illegal. Once polished, however, the stones do not require such certificates anymore; instead, they become part of a toothless industry scheme called the System of Warranties. But both this system and the Kimberley Process are full of holes, and it's a good bet that thieves of this caliber won't have much of a problem finding a way around this issue.

There's one more thing working in the thieves' favor: If the police don't catch them with their loot early on, it is highly unlikely the diamonds will ever be recovered. In the case of the 2003 Antwerp heist, only a handful of stones was ever found, and those stones were in the home safe of one of the thieves. He was later caught with some diamonds in his car, but the police had trouble tracing them back to the theft. The 2003 thieves were caught as they dumped incriminating garbage on their way from Antwerp to Brussels Airport. This week's crooks learned this lesson: They torched their getaway vehicle to destroy evidence.

It's said there's no honor among thieves, but a diamond heist from Antwerp's past holds a key lesson: Don't leave the loot with someone you can't trust to hold onto it. In 1994, Antwerp was rocked by a robbery, but one in which the police actually did get back the loot. After a theft from one of the trading halls, the robbers left the stones with some local diamond dealers to hold onto for safekeeping. But the dealers felt so much guilt over the heist that they gave the stones to their rabbi. Then, as any good man of God would do, the rabbi took the cardboard box full of millions of dollars of diamonds and biked down to a police station, where he sat patiently for hours until the police took the time to talk to him. He handed over the diamonds to the flabbergasted police and then declared the matter over. The police, appreciative as they were for the diamonds' safe return, did not -- and eventually arrested everyone (barring the rabbi) who'd taken part in the heist.

The ironic thing about this week's heist, though, is that odds are that the vast majority of these stolen stones will end up back in Antwerp soon -- but the people buying and selling them will have no idea they were stolen. Even victims of this heist would be unlikely to recognize one of their stones. And once the stones are relaundered through Antwerp's vast diamond industry, the hunt will effectively be over. In fact, in a few days, weeks, or months, it's a good bet that some of those diamonds will end up on their way to the biggest retail market in the world for diamond engagement rings -- the United States. You might even find one on sale at the jewelry shop at your local mall.

Paul O'Driscoll/Getty Images