Landmines data. Rape data

How many rapes are too many in war? Of course, one violent sexual attack on a woman is one too many. A single incident could be a war crime....

Susannah Sirkin
26 May 2011

And yet, gathering data to document the prevalence of this crime in the Congo and Colombia, in Afghanistan and Burma, and now in Ivory Coast and Libya, by our own countries’ militaries, is critical to understanding the scale and scope of these atrocities. 

Data can drive a new campaign to end sexual violence against women and girls, and also, an even more taboo crime, against men and boys.  Rape is the most under-reported and most silent of war crimes. But on every continent, researchers and activists and the survivors themselves are breaking through and giving voice to this violation in ways deep and wide.

Sitting with dozens of global women leaders at the conclusion of this inspiring conference on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict convened by Nobel Women’s Initiative, I recall how Physicians for Human Rights worked with activist Jody Williams in the early 1990s to launch another daunting campaign.

We documented alarming numbers of landmine victims using scientific samples and surveys.  Doctors and public health experts searched records, interviewed hospital workers and survivors in systematic evidence-based research projects. The numbers were shocking. The data helped galvanize the media, activists and governments in the historic effort to ban landmines. We worked to gather the data but also to analyze it more deeply. 

Under what circumstances did the incidents occur?  What types of injuries ensued?  What percentage died? What medical assistance did they receive?  How many suffered long-lasting physical or mental trauma?  What was the economic cost of landmine injuries? For five lightning years, numerous NGOs, the ICRC and UN agencies produced a constant flow of evidence-based documentation that provided the factual underpinnings of a miraculous and unprecedented campaign. 

The quality of our information was as important, if not more so, than its quantity.

We are at the threshold of a new campaign to stop rape in war.  And we have a much more challenging data collection and presentation job.

Here are some of the challenges:

How do we define sexual violence and how do we define conflict?  If our definitions are not clear, our data will be less powerful.  And yet, we are dealing with an important continuum from domestic violence to rape within relationships, to “transactual” sex in conflict zones by military abusing power, to individual cases of rape by soldiers and police to mass rape inflicted as a deliberate strategy or war or an element of the crime of genocide.  We see rape in “conflict” in the post-election violence in Kenya and as an element of the crime of genocide in Darfur.  But we also see rampant and unchecked sexual violence in Juarez, Mexico in the context of the “drug wars.” We can be both precise and inclusive as we scan the different contexts in which sexual violence in conflict occurs.

Interviewing survivors involves enabling those who have been attacked to speak out, and bear witness to the world, but it also risks re-traumatization and security challenges for the survivors who may be subject to reprisals by attackers and officials.  Great care must be made to assure interview subjects truly consent freely to provide information, understand the risks and benefits of participating in studies and are supported before, during and following participation in research.

Accompanying the data with deep analysis, especially for activists and the media is vital.  Providing shocking, but inaccurate headlines is a huge risk. Overstating the numbers can be dangerous and does a disservice to our cause. We need our data to be credible to political leaders and to prosecutors at every level. And we need to take care to explain what our data mean and what we know and need to know more about.

Complementing numbers with real life stories is essential. We do not want women who have been treated as less than human to become statistics in our campaign.  We need women’s individual voices and stories to accompany our numbers. How can we do this in a way which respects survivors’ dignity and choices for privacy or anonymity, at the same time, giving them the free option to make their identities known and taking control of their own voices.

Most importantly, we need to start gathering pointed data and information to drive a strategy to tackle the intransigence that prevents progress in ending rape in war and civil conflicts. Let’s collate all of the inadequate rape laws country by country.  Let’s list the numbers of reported rapes relative to successful prosecutions. Let’s document how many police and judges have been trained in addressing sexual violence and how many women police and judges are being trained and appointed.

How about a report on the availability, country by country, clinic by clinic of rape kits with adequate supplies to support women’s immediate medical care? Where are the aid chains being broken through corruption, inefficiency or callous neglect? What is happening to the children born of rape?  What about access to emergency contraception and failures to offer women this option due to culture, religion national laws or understanding of these options? Studies of perpetrators and their attitudes and motivations can help us get to preventive measures. Critical assessments of forensic institutions could help drive donors to support essential judicial infrastructure, including access to lab tests and DNA analysis. 

Most importantly, how can we best monitor, report, and collate incidents in real time and deliver high quality data to policy makers to intervene to protect women and girls in real time and to prevent further violence? Special Representative of the UN Secretary General Margot Wallstrom’s office is charged with developing a system to gather such data.  Those of us with data collection experience and those on the front lines supporting survivors need to come together with new technology experts and grassroots women’s groups to develop a powerful network to supply the necessary data to keep this issue in the forefront of the world’s consciousness and response.



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