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Were 75 percent of Liberian women and girls raped? No. So why is the U.N. repeating that misleading ‘statistic’?

Two women try on clothes at a shop in Monrovia, Liberia, in September. (Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images)

If you’ve heard one thing about Liberia’s brutal civil war, it may well be that 75 percent of Liberian women and girls were raped. Some human rights practitioners — and many media sources — regularly repeat that statistic. Just last week, a headline in the Independent described Liberia as the “country where up to three-quarters of women have been raped.”

But that horrifying and heartbreaking figure simply is not accurate.

Who said it this time?

The United Nations issued an important report last Friday highlighting the problem of rape in Liberia. It links increasing reports of rape to the “legacy of impunity arising from” Liberia’s 1990-2003 civil war. The report specifically says that “between 61.4 and 77.4 percent of women and girls in Liberia were raped during the war.”

Where did the figure come from?

The figure appears to be based on a clumsy misreading of a small-scale, nonrepresentative survey. Media sources often cite “a World Health Organization survey.” And indeed, WHO’s 2005 Country Cooperation Strategy for Liberia mentions a survey that found “that out of a sample of 412 women interviewed, rape was experienced by 77.4 percent of them and 64.1 percent of the rapes were gang rapes” (p. 8). The survey in question is a 2004 WHO Mission Report on sexual violence in Montserrado and Bong counties.

But the survey was not designed to provide information about all Liberian women and girls. As the report explains:

The sampling criteria for inclusion in the study were: a woman or a girl who is a survivor of sexual gender-based violence; who accepts voluntarily to participate in the study; who speaks English or any of the Liberian languages; and who can communicate and respond to questions (WHO report, p. 6).

In other words, it’s a survey of victims of sexual violence.

Of this small sample of victims in two counties, three-fourths reported that the sexually violent crime they experienced was rape, not some other form of sexual or gender-based violence.

That number cannot, and should not, be extrapolated to mean that three-quarters of all Liberian women and girls were raped.

What’s the right number?

We don’t know. It’s certainly true that Liberia’s war was characterized by mass rape. Several sources document widespread sexual violence, including rape. For example, Liberia’s Demographic and Health Survey found that about 18 percent of women suffered some form of sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes, including during the periods of war. Given the barriers to reporting rape — even to an anonymous survey — the data suggest a very high rate of sexual violence, far higher than the comparable numbers from DHS surveys in most other countries in conflict.

But it’s not even close to 75 percent of all Liberian women and girls.

Many victims’ advocates, service providers and policymakers recognize that this is not a credible figure. Even the new UN report that put the three-quarters myth back into the headlines acknowledges in a footnote the possibility that the WHO figure is “inflated.”

But that acknowledgment is itself flawed. The footnote cites the fact that the sample included refugees in a displaced-persons camp. But it misses the fact that only survivors of sexual violence were surveyed.

Why are we still seeing this claim?

In a 2012 article in the Journal of Peace Research, we noted that human rights advocates face a near-impossible task: how to keep an international spotlight on their area of focus — whether it’s a particular war, nation, refugee camp or form of violence — despite the volume of competing human rights catastrophes. Currently, the policy world is eager for statistics on which to base its decisions. And so advocates have an incentive to use any statistic that supports their priorities — whether accurate or not.

That’s a problem for far more situations than rape in Liberia. Dubious statistics about “sex, drugs and body counts” are not uncommon in an increasingly quantified world.

What does this mean?

Our collective willingness to repeat these false figures reveals some disturbing things.

First, credulity about rape in Liberia is tinged with racism. It harks back to a tired, damaging “darkest Africa” narrative that has long since been discredited.

What are we willing to believe about Liberians when we accept such statistics? Experts estimate that there are about 100,000 former combatants in Liberia, of whom about 25 percent are women (see endnote 15 of this report). Most served only briefly. If 75 percent of Liberia’s roughly 1 million women (taking the 1990 estimate of a total population around 2 million) were raped, that would mean there were at least seven rapes for every single male and female combatant.

Second, this “statistic” hints at how the inherent optimism of human rights advocacy — based on the belief that change is possible — can curdle into cynicism. Why is a respected body like the U.N. still using this fake fact when it can easily find better data? This seems like an admission that change is not possible, either within the U.N. or in Liberia.

Third, is it really necessary to distort the facts so much to gain public attention? We should not need to suggest that nearly every Liberian woman was raped to care about the actual, dire situation facing many Liberian women.

Why does this matter?

We’re social scientists. We think getting it right matters, both for research and for policy. But more important, repeating this figure endangers a very vulnerable population: the victims of the next incident of mass rape. We know that wartime rape is often unevenly spread across areas and populations, and that rape reporting in general is extremely uneven.

Even a small proportion of a population reporting rape in a national sample can represent an epidemic. But if we come to believe that sexual violence is epidemic only if it affects three out of four women and girls, will anyone care when, in the next conflict, “only” 9 percent of women and girls report rape, as they were in neighboring Sierra Leone?

Policymakers, human rights activists, scholars and journalists: Please don’t use this figure anymore. At best, it is not true. At worst, it is dangerous.

Dara Kay Cohen is assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and author of Rape During Civil War (Cornell University Press, 2016).

Amelia Hoover Green is assistant professor of politics at Drexel University. Find her on Twitter @HooverGreen.