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."