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ICEBERG IN AFRICA

Keeping a file of random clippings is an old-fashioned thing to do, but sometimes it offers you unexpected connections. Sometimes it’s a connection that you don’t even want to see. But there it is. So what are you going to do about it?

In June 2009, South Africa’s Medical Research Council published a report which said that over a quarter of South African men — 27.6 per cent — have raped somebody. Almost half of those men admitted to raping two or three women or girls. One in 13 of the self-confessed rapists said they had raped at least 10 victims.

The study was a model of statistical rigour. It used a Statistics South Africa model of one male interviewee in each of 1,738 households across all racial groups and income levels in both rural and urban areas. Half of the men interviewed were under 25 years old; 70 per cent of the rapists had forced a woman or girl into sex for the first time when they were under 20.

I found another report claiming that 40 per cent of South African women can expect to be raped during their lives. Then last November, I saw a report in The Guardian about a study carried out in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in which 34 per cent of the men interviewed — over a third — admitted to rape. That’s a war zone, of course, and it may not be representative of the Congo as a whole. But I did begin to wonder how widespread this phenomenon was, and I came across a study in the African Journal of Reproductive Health dating back to 2000, in which 20 per cent of a thousand women interviewed in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (hardly a war zone) said they had been raped. Only one-tenth of those rapes were reported to the police.

And early this month, came a report from the Rwanda government’s Gender Monitoring Office that a survey of more than 2,000 schoolchildren across the country revealed that 43 per cent of them were aware of other pupils being raped. Teachers were allegedly among the chief offenders.

Right to know

“If teachers are responsible for the problems of teenage pregnancies, that is a serious problem as they’re supposed to protect them,” said the education minister, Vincent Biruta. But Katherine Nichol, who works at Plan Rwanda, an NGO that promotes girls’ education in rural areas, was willing to go a little further. “We only know the tip of the iceberg of this issue here in Rwanda,” she said. That’s the question, really. Are these reports just anomalies and exceptions? After all, South Africa is very violent, the eastern Congo is a war zone, Rwandans have been traumatized by the genocide of 1994, and Tanzania is — well, maybe just an anomaly. Or are they the tip of a continent-wide iceberg?

Rapes happen everywhere, not just in Africa, and it’s especially bad in war zones. Practically all German women had been raped in the eastern parts of the country when the Soviet army swept in in 1944-45. But the subject today is Africa, and the few statistics available suggest that there is an astoundingly high number of rapes in several widely separated countries.

So what is needed now are better statistics. Is the proportion of rapists among the male population in the western Congo (which is more or less at peace) much lower than in the East, or not? Are Kenya’s official rape statistics (over 300 women per week) accurate, or should they be multiplied by 10 to account for non-reporting, as in Tanzania? Are the true numbers for rapes different in Muslim countries in Africa (all the ones mentioned above are predominantly Christian), or are they really the same?

Nobody will win a popularity contest by gathering these statistics, but millions of African women have the right to know the answer. And when the scale and nature of the problem are clear, there needs to be urgent, decisive action.