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.

  • 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?

  • Andrew Gelman


    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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  • 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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  • Guest

    Just to give my 2cents. Few people below say that India doesn’t count Marital Rape as Rape. Which is true but there is another Truth and that is that in India if A Girl claims that A Guy had Sex with her and promised to marry her and If the marriage doesn’t happen it is also considered as rape. So still if we include Marital Rape and Doesn’t count “Sex on Pretext of marriage as Rape” India will still have a low rape rate.

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    this statistics are not collected by indian gov but international
    organizations including US , i challenge you to show me any statistics
    where there are less rape in us which supposed to be a super power than in india whlch is a developing nation

    in india assult is
    crime whether its sexulal assult or just physical criminals go to jail
    and in indian jails we punish criminal unlike in US jail where criminal
    gets all the luxuries for which innocent americans have to work hard
    just look at how us treats its war vetrens compaere to criminal ,sicko a
    documentary by michale moore expose how 911 victims and hero are
    tereated by us govt compare to terrorist

    in us laws are against
    rape victims that’s why most victims go to civil court instead of
    criminal court there victims are paid by there rapist for rape and all
    record of crime are sealed and rapist walk free its the law there how
    can you justify that i thought prostitution was illegal in us
    jackson ,bill cosby all walk free after paying there victims to stay
    quiet victims accepted there offers because they knew they wont get
    justics in US there all so many casses are like this but they are sealed
    as per court order.

    how many catholic priest are arrested for there criems aginst children church buerried all cases with help from us govt

    and if choose not to believe data given here then thats your choice but that doesn’t change the facts
    prof is there if choose to see it

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  • Victor

    Also India does not have the serial killer and pedophilia problems for which BBC does not make any documentary saying that serial killing and pedophilia is a cultural problem of certain cultures because they make their men to think in a certain way.

  • Victor

    Of all the reported rape in USA, what % of them are reported marital rape? Marital rape is also vastly under reported in Western Countries. Lots of reported rapes in India are false claims where a girl claims rape when she has consensual sex with a guy with the promise to marry. Only after the guy breaks the promise to marry, she claims rape. This is something that does not happen in the Western world but it happens in India and inflates the reported rape rate. There are women in India also who, upon a romantic relationship ends on bad terms, claim rape.
    Given the fact that apple to apple comparision is not possible between Indian rape statistics and Western rape statistics, you must accept that West can not also, according your logic, claim that rape is a bigger problem in India than it is in the West that Western media tries to make us believe stereotipically.
    A balance would be achived if India had a powerful media like BBC where Indians could show the serial killing, pedophilia and massive amount of prison rape in the Western world in addition to showing the gang rapes also.

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  • Gyor

    “There are women in India also who, upon a romantic relationship ends on bad terms, claim rape.”

    That can happen in the West too.

    Honest just because people estimate aka guess that most rapes don’t get reported, doesn’t make it true. There is no hard evidence of this. Do some rapes go unreported, yes, does it vastly out number reported rapes? Pure speculation.

    And reported rapes aren’t the same as rapes that actually happen, a certain amount are proven false accusations (the actual total is proven and unproven is also pure speculation).

  • Rationalist Central

    In india rape is really very low and statistics reflect it. Reporting is actually higher than in abrahamic cultures . In hindu culture, the rape is a matter of shame for the man, not the woman. But india has had a lot of islamic influence for 1000 year where the woman is shamed. . Rape is much higher where there are muslims. Delhi has lots of muslims and adjacent to Punjab and Hariyana were under moghul islamic rule and still lot of islamic corruption in society.

    But reporting is high and people are very sensitive about rape especially dueto presence of muslims. Delhi gang rape main and most brutal culprit was Mohammad Afroze, and his interview can be seen why he raped, to punish the hindu girl Joyti Singh for choosing to dress attractively and going out to a movie with her boy friend.

  • bellajewels

    Victor: A year late I see but still. Do your research!! India has many serial killers and they are some of the most horrendous. Google it. Pedophilia is alive and well in India. Problem is the culture is different and silence is the answer. Swept under the rug since most of the perpetrators are under the same roof as the victim…and are often the breadwinners. All crime crosses all boundaries. Justifying crimes in India by deflecting doesn’t help.

  • bellajewels

    Ha, you are blaming it all on white Christians? Blame is everywhere….crosses all religions and races. Don’t be stupid.