Lies, Damned Lies, Rape, and Statistics

Friday, January 25, 2013
By Sharad Goel

Black ribbon

The vicious gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in Delhi last month is tragically just one of many attacks on women that occur every day in India. In 2011 alone, there were more than 24,000 reported rapes in the country, with likely many times that number going unreported. This horrific incident has spurred international outrage, including tens of thousands of protestors in the Indian capital city calling on the government to do more to ensure the safety of women.

“It is hard to argue that this recent atrocity stems from a uniquely Indian culture of violence toward women.”

In response to the brutal attack, the New York Times published an editorial deploring the significant increase in reported rapes in India over the last several years, concluding that “India must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued.” While highlighting the 572 reported rapes in Delhi in 2011, however, the editors failed to mention that New York City — with 30% fewer people — recorded 1,420 rapes that year, more than twice as many as India’s crime capital. And New York is no exception: every large American city has a higher incidence of rape than Delhi. Internationally, the plot below shows that India, in fact, has one of the lowest rates of rape in the world, about 2 for every 100,000 people — comparable to countries like Canada and Japan. The United States, by contrast, recorded more than ten times as many per capita rapes — 30 per 100,000 — putting it at the top of the list. In short, it is hard to argue that this recent atrocity stems from a uniquely Indian culture of violence toward women.

Number of police-recorded rape offenses per 100,000 people (2005-2009)

One possible explanation for India’s relatively low recorded rate of rape is simply that the statistics are inaccurate. In the United States, it is estimated that only about one-third of rapes are reported. Thus, if the reporting rate in India were 2%, the country’s true per-capita rate would be comparable to that of the United States. Though that’s not an impossibly low number, I suspect underreporting is not the primary driver of the observed differences.

To be clear, India is no leader on women’s rights or safety. The gender inequality index — a measure based on reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market — ranks India at 129th in the world. India’s performance on this measure, however, is comparable to the country’s overall economic and “human development.” For example, annual per capita GDP of $1,500 places India at 140th in the world; and based on the human development index — an aggregate measure of health, education, and income — India ranks 134th. To the extent that India fares poorly on gender issues, it performs no better when looking at the population at large.

Statistics, at its core, is fundamentally about making comparisons. While even a single occurrence of rape is deplorable, understanding and effectively addressing the problem requires placing the absolute numbers in context. Reiterating the sentiment expressed by the American embassy in India, the tragedy in Delhi should spur us to “recommit ourselves to … ending all forms of gender-based violence, which plagues every country in the world.”

 

Illustration by Kelly Savage.

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  • Daniel Griffin

    The graph you use is completely misleading. The statistics you quote are specifically not to be used for international comparisons because of their limitations.

    Secondly, you completely gloss over the fact that definitions of rape vary from country to country (for instance in India marital rape is not a criminal matter).

    You really do not have the data to make the arguments you are trying.

  • http://www.facebook.com/5harad.6oel Sharad Goel

    Daniel, I agree that accurately estimating the incidence of rape is a challenging problem, due both to underreporting and to differing legal definitions between countries. Nonetheless, I believe the statistics I cite — compiled by the United Nations — are the most accurate available. In fact, the New York Times editorial that prompted my blog post was based on precisely the same Indian rape statistics that I quote.

  • chami

    I have heard many times before that the definitions of rape vary from country to country and therefore no valid comparisons can be made between countries.

    I would beg to differ. The definitions are local, i.e., what matters here is the local culture and values- if the locals consider it a rape, then it is a rape.

    There are problems here in a global definition: what is a rape in Sweden is not a rape in India (perhaps) but then we need to revise and reframe the question: what proportion of the female population in the respective countries consider themselves sexually violated in an inappropriate manner (over a given time frame).

    The same argument can be given for underreporting. The threshold is not same everywhere and varies from country to country. It is perhaps inaccurate to state that Indian threshold is high in matters of rape but then it is a social problem and we need to accept that.

    Perhaps I am wrong to state that as acceptable. We are trying to improve and sensitize the people but till that time we need to work with this. Putting a number of underreporting is far more horrible. How does one get this number?

  • http://profiles.google.com/andrew.e.gelman Andrew Gelman

    Sharad:

    Rather than using a color code, I think you should just label the lines directly. Different colored lines would help to distinguish countries such as U.S. and Belgium where the lines cross, but I don’t think it makes sense to use colors as a look-up table. Not when you can just label the lines directly.

    Also the rate can’t go negative, so I don’t think the y-axis should go below zero.

    It would also be good to go back before 2005, but I assume that’s all you have available.

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  • MK

    Agreed that if we take into account the unreported rapes, India will be worse than US in per-capita terms. But not extraordinarily worse. That’s the point.

    Why are American or European national news outlets not publishing similar stories about their own countries? Because it doesn’t satisfy their readers’ stereotyping of Americans and Europeans?

    American news outlets have covered India gang rape story – the CNN story about the recent Mumbai case has 900 comments. What about all these stories that happened in August 2013 (this month):

    (Not posting links here otherwise it will get blocked as spam – but you can google these headlines to find the stories)

    Spain: “I was gang raped in front of hundreds of clubbers in Magaluf”: Brave teenager’s shocking story

    Australia: Teenager gang-raped while walking home from her friend’s house in northern NSW (no the rapists were not Muslims – they were a mix of White and Aboriginies) Victim was forced to leave town)

    China – Li Tianyi gang rape victim sent to mental institution following collapse

    Texas, US: Five more men arrested in gang rape of 13-year-old

    Tennessee, US: Fifth Vanderbilt Student Arrested For Alleged Role In Gang Rape of 21-year old female student

    North Carolina: Girl ‘encouraged’ gang rape of Audrie Pott who committed suicide

    Canada: Victim tells Toronto court of alleged gang rape

    UK: Friendly meet-up turns into gang rape for ‘traumatised’ Manchester teen (no they were not part of a Muslim gang – all Caucasian)

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  • http://weredowefit.blogspot.com/ Aidan,Nevins

    The issue the media has with these countries and rape is that we understand its going to happen everywhere but using rape as punishment is beyond belief for an advanced nation.
    Hell thinking Women can’t do anything a man can do is idiotic.

    Bill Gates was asked in Saudi Arabia if he thought they could become a leading nation in the world. He said as he looked upon a segregated crowd No You will never become a world leader when you dont utilize half of the population.

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  • westwoodwizard

    Sure..and when the statistics support your white Christian supremacist view of the world you will be the first one to cite such statistics. Even if you take into account marital rape, guess what buddy it is not reported much in the United States either and if you take this so called under reporting category which is difficult to measure since under reporting implies that no reports were made thus how would anybody know etc then the US rape statistics are still higher and even if they were not so what you still have a domestic violence/rape problem in America not to mention a violence problem in general where people kill elementary school children with guns more so than in other countries including India. Rape and violent crime in America is plentiful yet you white Christian bigots spend too much time trying to denigrate India because its people are brown skinned with a Hindu majority…

  • westwoodwizard

    Rape including marital rape is also severely under reported in the US so don’t let these white Christian supremacists who think they are culturally superior to India and its Hindu majority fool you…they like to highlight crimes in other countries when in fact the US is much more violent than India. In India, people don’t go around shooting elementary school children. The problem in India is their media never writes articles condemning all the bad things that happen in the US in terms of crimes and problems such as the racial and religious discrimination practiced by the white Christian majority…

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