During the recent debate over President Trump’s border wall, we were struck by the fact that there were two disparate figures cited in the media. The president several times has referred to 1 in 3 migrant women being sexually assaulted as they traveled through Mexico, while news organizations (including The Washington Post) have cited a figure almost twice as large just for rapes, attributing it to Amnesty International.
The Amnesty International figure has been quoted repeatedly over the years. “Amnesty International estimated in 2010, 60 percent of young women making that journey are raped,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said during a Senate hearing in 2018. “Amnesty International has released figures of upwards of 60 percent of the young women trying to find a better life here in the United States are being raped before they get here,” then-Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft said in 2014. “According to Amnesty International, 60 percent of migrant women and girls are raped while migrating,” the United Nations University in Japan website says.
But guess what? This is not an Amnesty International number. It has been misreported for years, including by Amnesty.
First, let’s take a look at Trump’s figure. The White House attributes the 1-in-3 estimate to a 2017 report by Doctors Without Borders. But there’s less to that number than meets the eye.
Trump states as a fact that 1 out of 3 women traveling through Mexico are sexually assaulted. But the report did not conduct a random-sample survey that could be applied to all migrant women. Instead, the group interviewed nearly 500 people whom its doctors treated, of which 12 percent were women. So the statistic is derived from the experiences of 56 women and cannot necessarily be considered representative of all migrant women.
In the interviews, 31.4 percent of women said they were “sexually abused” on the journey, not “sexually assaulted” as Trump says. Considering only rape and other forms of direct sexual violence, 10.7 percent of the women who were interviewed said they were affected during their journey.
Ten percent is significantly smaller than 60 percent, which led us to wonder how the Amnesty figure was derived.
In October 2013, Amnesty International issued a news release about a slide show exhibit on migrants that would open in Mexico City. “Rape is widespread,” the news release said. “It is believed that as many as six out of every 10 migrant women and girls experience sexual violence during the journey.”
No source for this information was cited. It took a little digging, but eventually we located a 2010 report issued by Amnesty International: “Invisible Victims: Migrants on the move in Mexico.” Buried in the report is this line: “It is a widely held view — shared by local and international NGOs and health professionals working with migrant women — that as many as six in 10 migrant women and girls are raped.”
Already you can see there’s a problem. A statistic cited in 2019 comes from a 2010 report. The sentence had a footnote, so we followed that. The source was a 2002 report in Spanish by Luis Mora, written for the United Nations Population Fund. The footnote added: “The report itself cites a 1999 report,” and it gave the citation.
So, we are no longer in 2010 and may be as far back as 1999. The numbers are getting especially stale. When we located Mora’s paper, we discovered that the Amnesty report had cited the wrong source, and had mischaracterized it.
A sentence on page 12 of Mora’s report said: “Investigations conducted along Mexico’s southern border have demonstrated that 70 percent of female migrants are subjected to violence and 60 percent are subjected to some form of sexual abuse during the trip, ranging from sexual coercion to rape.”
The 1999 citation in Amnesty’s 2010 report referred to the 70 percent facing violence; a different document was the source of the 60 percent figure. Note also that it was not just about rape but any form of sexual abuse, “ranging from sexual coercion to rape.”
So where did the 60 percent figure come from? Mora cited a 1998 book, published in English as “For Those Who Didn’t Make It . . . A Dream in Ashes,” written by Paul Kobrak and Mayra Palencia. The 128-page book was published by a refugee organization sponsored by the Catholic Church in Guatemala.
But when we obtained the book, we were surprised to see how the statistic is framed: “A study of migrants estimates that 60 percent of the illegal female migrants have some sort of sexual experience in their trip toward the U.S.: from rape or coerced sexual relations, to a lover.”
In other words, the original source of the 60 percent statistic included not just rapes or sexual abuse but also experiences of women who may have had a boyfriend on the journey, whether out of necessity or desire.
The book does not cite a source, but Kobrak told The Fact Checker he believed the statistic came from Olivia Ruíz of the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana. A 1995 study involving Ruíz is listed in the bibliography, but it does not include the 60-percent figure; Ruíz did not respond to requests for comment.
In any case, the figure comes from interviews conducted a quarter-century ago, making it irrelevant now.
Amnesty International acknowledged that the oft-cited statistic is not derived from its research.
“You’re correct that the statistic wasn’t originally ours, though it was cited in the 2010 report,” said Robyn Shepherd, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International. “While the 2010 report is outdated, we do know that sexual violence is still far too prevalent, and we have continued to focus on this issue in the ensuing years.”
Sometimes, the 60 percent figure is mentioned in conjunction with another, even higher estimate, that 80 percent of migrant women are raped, attributed to a 2014 report by Fusion. The Fusion report says 80 percent of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped along the way, claiming the information came from directors of migrant shelters. But the report adds: “The actual figures are impossible to know.”
The phrase “raped along the way” in the Fusion piece “is problematic and inaccurate; it should say ‘sexual assault,’“ said Erin Siegal McIntyre, one of the reporters of the Fusion piece. “In my brief experience working in TV, this kind of error happened a lot. Looking at the piece now, I’m kind of stunned to see ‘rape’ in the lead and not ‘sexual assault.’“
McIntyre said she originally heard the 80 percent figure from a shelter director, read it in a book published in 2010, and then asked male and female migrants, shelter directors, social workers, lawyers, police and so forth whether that figure “sounded fair.”
Anecdotal estimates are not a substitute for detailed, documented interviews with migrants, though those can be difficult to obtain because of a reluctance to report sexual violence. The Mexican National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) in 2011 interviewed 750 migrants in Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemala border and reported that 8.3 percent of women surveyed said they were forced to have sex during their journey, 9.2 percent said they were sexually fondled or touched and 28.2 percent said they exchanged sex for goods or services. But this also was before much of the journey through Mexico had started.
Another NIPH study published in 2013, based on interviews with 862 migrants, including a quarter in shelters near the northern border, found that 21.1 percent experienced violence during their journey. This study, however, did not explain whether the violence was sexual in nature.
René Leyva Flores, the main author of the reports, said NIPH is updating its research on the subject and hopes to publish updates shortly.
The Pinocchio Test
This turns out to be a bad case of academic telephone. Each time the statistic was repeated in another paper, nuance was lost. A number that originally referred to any kind of sexual experience, whether wanted or not, eventually became rape. It appears no one bothered to look back at the original source document. They were content to simply rely on a citation to Amnesty International, even if it was not Amnesty’s figure.
Sexual violence against women is a serious issue, and it’s important not to minimize it. Though it is thorough, the 2017 Doctors Without Borders report based on recent interviews does not suggest, as Trump does, that it applies to all migrant women. (Trump’s framing is worthy of Two Pinocchios.) Moreover, note that the percentage of women who reported rape is about 10 percent, similar to the NIPH study.
The 60 percent figure for rape so often attributed to Amnesty International needs to be discarded, corrected in news reports and scrubbed from websites. No one should keep repeating this Four Pinocchio claim.
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