Infographic: Rape in war, by the numbers

By — January 9, 2015

We know there’s a problem but we don’t know how big it is. That’s what governments, scholars, and others argue when trying to figure out how to allot funds toward this problem of sexualized violence in conflict. If we don’t know the numbers, they ask, how can we help properly? How can we mount prosecutions? Offer reparations? Put in place proper advocacy? So the thinking goes.

In years of documenting sexualized violence in the Syria conflict, I’ve long maintained that we can’t know in a hot war exactly how many women and men are being violated—but we know it is happening. There have been too many reports, many credible and confirmed, to say it is not. Which means that every dollar not spent to help these survivors, many of whom appear to have made it out of the war zone, is another survivor left suffering without psychological, medical, or other supportive care. (And there is next to no money being spent on these issues in the Syria context, according to my sources in the region who treat survivors of torture and rape. They say that women who are escaping abduction from ISIS are returning severely traumatized and sit languishing in temporary centers with zero psychological treatment.)

The problem is that it is nearly impossible to know exact—or often even ballpark—numbers of women raped in conflict. There’s too much in the way: the murder of victims after rape (aka the destruction of evidence), deep stigma that prevents reporting, fear of retribution by either the perpetrators or the survivor’s family. Women have no reason to come forward.

But over time, some have. Much of the work to count them has been done forensically, however, through costly research efforts. Here then are some of the numbers painstakingly gathered by researchers. Beneath the numbers, I’ve written just a few specific reasons why we shouldn’t trust them—why all numbers counting a problem based in trauma and fear are certainly higher than estimated.

Numbers are crucial to quantifying any problem. But numbers can also be a smokescreen preventing us from seeing the pain happening around us every day. Share them with a grain of salt. Let others know that behind each number is a human who has suffered deeply, and that she too deserves to be counted.


Full ranges of estimates in the chart above, with links to sources:

Bosnia, 1992-95 50,000-60,000
Colombia, 2001-09


Democratic Republic of Congo, 2006-07


Nanking, 1937 20,000-80,000
Rwanda, 1994 250,000-500,000
Sierra Leone, 1991-2002 215,000-257,000
WWII, 1944-45



“According to a 2013 global study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, only 7% of survivors of gender-based violence formally reported the violence to police, medical, or social services.” This study was carried out by Stony Brook University Professor Tia Palermo, Jennifer Bleck of the University of South Florida, and Amber Peterman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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