Every year there is an outcry when the police crime statistics are released to show an increase in the number of reported rapes. To many, this increase is a sign that the police are failing miserably in their policing duties. But can the police actually prevent rape?
In a paper summarising research around men’s perpetration of rape, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified some 22 factors contributing to sexual violence. On the basis of these findings the police, in order to prevent rape, would need to compensate for miserable childhoods, dismantle patriarchy, promote loving and intimate sexual relationships, create full employment, cure substance abuse problems, teach anger management courses (along with skills to curb impulsive thinking and behaviour, as well as build shaky egos) and provide schooling to those with incomplete educations. None of these activities falls within the police’s job descriptions and many are well beyond their control. So no, it is not really within the police’s power to prevent most rapes.
Trying to reduce the number of rapes reported to the police also ignores the fact that only a handful of victims actually make their way to the police. The national South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS) undertaken by the Department of Health in 1997 found that only one in nine women who experienced rape reported the attack to the police. So unless the police intend routinely conducting large-scale surveys investigating the extent of under-reporting by rape survivors, they have no way of knowing whether decreases are due to fewer rape survivors reporting to the police, or the result of an actual drop in the incidence of rape.
It is more important then, to measure what is within the police’s scope and control, such as the number of arrests they make and their ability to investigate cases sufficiently well to enable them to go to trial. We also need figures from the National Prosecuting Authority for the number of rape cases that result in convictions.
Ultimately, women’s decisions to report rape are not motivated by the burning and heartfelt desire to contribute to police statistics. Rather, through reporting, women seek justice, to feel safer knowing the perpetrator can no longer threaten them and to prevent the same fate being inflicted on others. Because statistics literally tell us what counts, the routine absence of figures for arrests, trials and convictions demonstrates that the measure of women’s claims to justice count not at all.