Rape is not a number and it should never become only digits in a report

Updated Nov 28 2017

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Photo credit: Soofia Says
Photo credit: Soofia Says

Rape is not a number. And, neither should it nor other forms of gender-based violence ever become only digits in a report.

Yet, when it comes to researching this form of violence, experiences of gender-based physical and sexual violence are—more often than not—grossly reduced to mere statistics.

It is easy to make sense of numbers. The more extreme a figure, the more severe the situation appears. The higher a death toll, the worse it is. The more number of women raped, the higher the sexual assault rate is for that area.

While the collection of empirical data helps brings issues of sexual violence to light, viewing gendered violence in purely quantitative terms is an extremely reductive approach that not only contributes greatly to the erasure of victims’ experiences, but will also never alone provide the grounded understanding needed to annihilate gendered violence.

This is especially the case in Pakistan, where talking about sexual violence is taboo and crimes of such nature are highly under-reported, and any data that is collected will be unrepresentative of the reality.

If victims are hesitant to go to the police, it is very likely that they might not respond to research surveys either.

However, utilising the cases that are reported and the victims that are willing to share their experience, can help reduce the stigma around reporting and discussing rape and other forms of sexual violence.

We can also use the narratives to hone in on the notion that sexual violence is not a one-size-fits all and can occur in various forms.

It is only through a synthesis of both empirical as well as descriptive, qualitative data that physical and sexual violence can be tackled adequately.

On UN Women’s Facts and figures: Ending Violence Against Women webpage, the top line gives us a shocking figure:

“It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.”

Just like that, a victim becomes a number on a report.

Ranging from anti-rape campaigns by NGOs to government policy-making, these figures are everywhere, and dominate the discourse around gendered violence.

While obliterating the school of nuance in service of a greater, global purpose, this particular ‘facts and figures’ collection of the UN is a great example of the rather widespread phenomenon of decontextualised work that exists within research on gendered violence.

By attempting to somewhat contextualise it globally, the data has lost all relative context; it skates over the experiences of 35% of women worldwide in order to produce a lumped statistic that minimises the victim’s experience.

If you scroll further down on the same page, you come across another seemingly comprehensive global figure:

“Around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their Lives.”

120 million seems scary. In fact, it is scary. But, what does it tell an ordinary person or a policy-maker about the different shapes sexual violence can take or why it happens?

Here, empirical data alone has no other function except as a fear-inducing instrument. And, even that has the potential of being inaccurate: Pakistan ranks 6th in the top 10 worst countries when it comes to rape cases. Taking into account the rampant nation-wide stigma, who is to say that we don’t, in fact, deserve a higher rank?

The primary reason we study gendered violence is to understand how to defeat it, and that understanding cannot come from only looking at numbers.

Instead, obtaining qualitative data in the form of curating unique experiences of victims of gendered violence will prove to be the key to effective policy-making as well as educating the larger community.

This will also be the most representative of those surveyed since any data collected on gendered violence will be inherently qualitative.

Questions about physical and sexual violence are always predicated on the description of an individual’s experience of that violence.

Given the variation in experiences, any robust data collection around sexual violence cannot simply be a yes or no question.

It is distinct from victim to victim which is why a narrative style description should always be the primary form of data collection.

In cases where qualitative data is first collected, quantitative data is derived from that first set. These empirical numbers are then disseminated to the public and policy-makers alike.

Even though extremely nuanced qualitative data exists in the background, it is the numbers that end up influencing preventive policy-making.

Getting the numbers right then becomes the goal of formulating policy which, in most cases, delivers upending fixes to the problem.

More importantly, gendered violence, especially sexual violence, can take very different forms in situations of peace time as compared to situations of war and conflict.

In this case, experiential understanding of violence becomes indispensable because the idea that assault rates rocket or plummet during wartime is rendered obsolete if the rubric of sexually violent behaviour that we’re using to make the comparison is entirely different from what the wartime reality might be.

Subsequently, we would also need different policy mechanisms that can be better derived from particular experiences from wartime violence.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of patterns of sexual violence and its varying trajectory during peace and wartime, we must prioritise the circulation of experiences as primary data.


This does not mean that one should no longer make use of empirical methods, but that one should at least have something to ground those numbers in.

Enabling the experiences and voices of victims and circulating those instead of seemingly harmless numbers is definitely challenging.

The explicit nature of these accounts may be triggering for certain audiences, especially other victims. This is especially where an empirical approach comes in handy.

Laura Sjoberg et al. highlight that a "careful, complex engagement’ be used which is ‘multi-method, epistemologically pluralist, multi-sited, and carefully navigates these differences" of experience.

By bringing together both empirical and narrative-style data when it comes to sexual violence, Pakistan can more effectively deal with the issue of sexual violence by attacking both the perpetuation of violence as well as the prevalence of stigma against reporting these abhorrent acts of violence.


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