Last year, when the rape statistics went down, this was offered as proof of the police's success in preventing rape. This year, when the statistics went up ("Change is fear". September 23), the increase was explained as proof of greater public confidence in the police, thus encouraging women to report the crime.
These self-congratulatory claims, offered without so much as a smidgen of supporting evidence, certainly demonstrate chutzpah on the part of the police. At the same time they point to the threadbare nature of our crime figures, as well as the need for critical public engagement with these statistics – our fear of incurring the president's epistolary wrath notwithstanding.
In general, police statistics the world over reflect crime-reporting practices rather than the actual incidence of any specific crime.
Of all crimes, rape is particularly bedevilled by under-reporting with the likelihood of victims reporting the attack to the police being determined by a range of factors. These include the social stigma attached to being raped, perceptions around whether or not the criminal justice system will actually do anything meaningful about the charge, fear of retaliation from the perpetrator and his cronies, and whether or not victims define what has happened to them as rape.
Those living in societies where a claim of rape lays women open to imprisonment for adultery is also a great deterrent to reporting. Nor does it help to have a president like General Pervez Musharraf who recently complained that Pakistani women were crying rape in order to become millionaires and travel to Canada.
So, whichever numbers are finally presented to us by the police, from whatever part of the world, they are but part of a depressingly greater whole.
To know whether increases are the result of more reporting or more rapes, it is necessary to run regular crime-victim surveys.
Typically, these surveys ask people about crimes they may recently have been subjected to and then whether or not these experiences were reported to the police. When run regularly, such surveys are helpful in tracking changes in reporting practices over time.
A Statistics South Africa's (Stats SA) national crime survey found that one-out-of-two rape survivors reported the matter to the police, while the three province survey by the Medical Research Council (MRC) on violence against women found that one-in-nine victims reported the matter. Given its specific focus on rape, the MRC's findings are likely to be more accurate than those of the more general Stats SA research. However, because both studies were conducted in the late 1990's and no follow-up survey has been conducted since, it is impossible to state with any confidence whether or not the situation has changed.
Until such surveys become routine, we cannot know whether more or fewer women are reporting rape.
At another level, it would be a mistake to treat the statistics as a measure of the police's success in preventing rape. Certainly, the police's traditional methods of prevention in the form of road blocks and tip-offs may intercept some cash-in-transit heists as well as identify illegal firearms and stolen cars.
Targeted police patrolling is another traditional strategy which may interrupt some of the rapes that occur out-of-doors. However, it is not feasible to patrol people's homes, where many rapes are perpetrated, and community tip-offs and roadblocks do precious little to prevent a boyfriend from raping his girlfriend.
Of greater relevance than their prevention capabilities, is the police's ability to deter a rapist by arresting suspects and thoroughly investigating cases, coupled with the courts' effective prosecution and conviction of suspects. These however, are the statistics on which not only the police but the criminal justice system as a whole are silent.
Women's decisions to report rape are not motivated by a burning desire to contribute to police statistics. Rather, through reporting, women seek to claim redress, to feel safer knowing the perpetrator can no longer threaten them and to prevent the same fate being inflicted on others. Because statistics literally tell us what counts, the absence of figures for arrest, prosecution and conviction rates demonstrates that the measure of women's right to justice counts not at all.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in Mail & Guardian, 30 September-6 October 2005.