Getting Stuck in Statistics

30 05 2008

by Stuart Buchanan

I don’t really know what there is to say about Rape that isn’t blatantly obvious or hasn’t been said before. When researching the subject for our recent Television News project, there were a lot of statistics flying around at Rhodes as well as on the internet. It’s often the starting place for many activists to rally people to their cause, by quoting a statistic like ‘A woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa’. Not only is it shocking and disgusting, but it often has the effect of getting people to speak out, or show their support in some way.

At Rhodes University, a different statistic was used. Less than one in nine cases of rape are reported, and of those an even smaller percentage are successfully prosecuted. With this, volunteers gagged themselves for a day to represent this silence, while a few remained ungagged to explain the protest and represent the few voices that do speak out.

The volunteers were wearing T-shirts which further explained the protest, and also quoted a number of other statistics. While the protest was successful overall, in the days that followed I found some interesting discussions going on about the incorrect use of statistics. The figures seem to change with every website you visit – POWA quote stats without revealing their source, the SAPS figures show a different total to what the Rhodes volunteers quoted, and the One in Nine Campaign haven’t even updated their website since 2006. With all these different figures flying around, it is understandable to see how some people can criticise these activists for phoney stats that detract from their cause, and make it seem as if they are exaggerating the facts to enlist members.

Personally, I don’t take that view. What’s the point? Why criticise a good cause? Stats are important to legitimise a cause, but the fact is we all know that rape is a problem in South Africa. A huge problem. Can we not move away from getting the facts straight and understand that something needs to be done anyway? Just because the figures are fuzzy, it doesn’t mean these activists are exaggerating things. Why would they need to – the real situation is bad enough. And furthermore, each case of rape is a traumatic experience for every survivor. The fact that rape happens at all is disturbing enough. When are these stats-obsessed people going to be happy? When the figure is 5 in 9 or 7 in 9 instead of 1 in 9? Why don’t we just focus on the cause and less on the figures? Well done to the volunteers at Rhodes for doing just that.

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