Rape is an African behaviour that must be changed

Last May, with considerable trepidation, I wrote an article about what seemed to be extraordinarily high rates of rape in Africa.

Last May, with considerable trepidation, I wrote an article about what seemed to be extraordinarily high rates of rape in Africa. The original data came from a study by South Africa’s Medical Research Council in 2009 that found more than one-quarter of South African men — 27.6 per cent — admitted they had committed rape. Almost half of those men had raped two or three women or girls. One in 13 had raped at least 10 victims.

Over the next couple of years I came across similar reports, though less well documented, from several other African countries, so I wrote a piece saying this was a phenomenon that needed urgent investigation continent-wide. It occurred to me to wonder if there were similar icebergs in other developing countries.

The official figures for rape are very low almost everywhere in the developing world because women are reluctant to report rape in any society, and in traditional societies much more so. The South African study was the only one that had adopted the strategy of asking men directly. Maybe if the same sort of study were done in other continents, I thought, it would return equally horrifying figures.

Somebody else had the same thought and the resources to do something about it. The new report, conducted under the auspices of four United Nations agencies, was published recently in the online version of The Lancet Global Health, a respected British medical journal. The study was undertaken specifically to learn if the South African figures were duplicated in developing countries outside Africa.

The researchers chose six countries in the Asia-Pacific region: China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In most of them, between two and four per cent of the men interviewed said they had raped a “non-partner” woman. That falls into the same range that prevails in most developed countries.

But Papua New Guinea was right up there with South Africa: 26.6 per cent of the men interviewed had raped at least one woman who was not a wife or girlfriend. Moreover, 14 per cent of PNG men had participated in a gang rape, and 7.7 per cent had raped a man or boy. So Asia as a whole is quite different from Africa on this count — but PNG is practically identical.

What is so special about Papua New Guinea? It is a country with an extravagantly large number of different tribes and languages. It is an extremely violent country, where most people live in extreme poverty. It is a place where the law is enforced only sporadically — often corruptly. It is a place where traditional tribal values, patriarchal to the core, reign virtually unchallenged among a large part of the population. Remind you of anywhere?

Well, you already suspected this was at the root of it, didn’t you? You just didn’t want to say so, for fear of being accused of being racist, anti-African or something of that sort.

But it does need to be said, loudly and repeatedly. Women and girls are more likely to be the victims of sexual violence in Africa than almost anywhere else, and the only way to change that is to change the behaviour of African men. By persuasion if possible but also by enforcing the law.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.