Prevalence of Sexual Assault
last updated February 1, 2006

Sexual assault is significantly underreported worldwide. Because of underreporting, determining the prevalence of sexual assault in various regions of the world can be difficult. As the former Special Rapporteur has explained, underreporting of sexual assault "might arise from the fear of being re-victimized in the criminal justice system, of not being believed, from self-blame and from failure by rape victims to equate their experience with the legal definition of rape." From 1997 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1997/47), 12 February 1997.

Women may fear that they would be blamed for the assault, or believe that reporting would place them or their families in danger of retaliatory violence. A recent publication by the Open Society Institute's Network Women's Program states:

Rape goes largely unreported across the region. The act of rape is surrounded by pejorative stereotypes: women ask for it, they provoke it by their dress or behavior, or they cry rape to take revenge on a man; normal men do not commit rape, and so on. In addition, reporting procedures, at the police station and again in the courts, are complicated and degrading. In most cases, if a woman reports being raped, she is regarded with suspicion and rarely believed; she lacks any form of police or court protection, leaving her vulnerable to retaliation—either from the offender or, in some cases, from members of her family who feel she has brought them dishonor.

As the Network Women's Program explains further, an additional obstacle to the willingness and ability of women to speak about sexual violence "is the reinstatement of the 'traditional' male-dominated family throughout the region. Governments often collude with culture in this reinstatement." As an example, the report cites the Polish government's cancellation of a 1997 program to establish crisis centers that would provide victims with medical and psychological care, shelter, and legal and financial assistance. "The government declared flatly that 'offering help to women and children outside their family home contributes to a break up of that family.'"

From Open Society Institute, Network Women's Program, Bending the Bow: Targeting Women's Human Rights and Opportunities 23 (2002). The Network Women's Program is a program of the Open Society Institute that provides technical assistance to organizations in CEE/FSU working on gender issues.

Despite this underreporting, available statistics indicate that sexual assault is a pervasive problem in all societies. Charlotte Bunch, in an article included in UNICEF's 1997 publication, The Progress of Nations, has stated that "[s]tatistics on rape from industrialized and developing countries show strikingly similar patters: Between one in five and one in seven women will be victims of rape in their lifetime." From Charlotte Bunch, The Intolerable Status Quo: Violence Against Women and Girls, in UNICEF, The Progress of Nations 41, 42 (1997). Another report states that "[g]lobally, at least 10-15% of all women report being forced to have sex and that considerable proportions of the victims of sexual assault are less than 15 years old." From Peter Gordon & Kate Crehan, Dying of Sadness: Gender, Sexual Violence and the HIV Epidemic, SEPED Conference Paper Series.

Then Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radika Coomaraswamy, in her 1997 report on violence against women, detailed the following statistics:

  • A Canadian study reports that 23.3% of women had been victims of rape or attempted rape. 
  • 22% of adult women in Seoul had been the victims of rape or attempted rape. 
  • In Jakarta, Indonesia, city police recorded 2,300 cases of sexual violence against women in 1992, 3,200 cases in 1993, and 3,000 in the first half of 1994.
  • Out of 331,815 reported crimes against women in 1993 in the Russian Federation, 14,000 were rapes. 
  • A survey in the United Kingdom found that 19.4% of women had been victims of sexual violence. 
  • Adolescents constitute 20-50% of all rape victims in the United States.
  • In a study conducted at a university in the United States, one of six female students reported having been the victim of rape or attempted rape in the past year. One out of fifteen men reported having committed rape or attempted to commit rape.

From 1997 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1997/47), 12 February 1997.

According to estimates from the World Health Organization:

  • In some countries, almost one in four women may experience sexual violence by an intimate partner, and that almost one-third of young girls report that their first sexual encounter was forced.
  • The percentage of women who reporting having been sexual assaulted in the past five years in Tirana, Albania in 1996 was 6%. 
  • The percentage of women who reporting having been sexual assaulted in the past five years in Budapest, Hungary in 1996 was 2%. 
  • The percentage of women who reporting having been sexual assaulted in the past five years in Ðiauliai, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Panevežys, and Vilnius in Lithuania in 1997 was 4.8%. 
  • The percentage of women who reporting having been sexual assaulted in the past five years in Ulaanbaatar and Zuunmod, Mongolia in 1996 was 3.1%.
  • In a survey of women in the Czech Republic, 11.6% of women reported experiencing forced sexual contact in their lifetime, and 3.4% reported that they had experienced this on more than one occasion.

From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 149-151 (2002).

In another report, the World Health Organization estimated that in CEE/FSU, between twenty and fifty percent of all women have been subjected to some form of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and sexual harassment. From World Health Organization, Regional Committee for Europe, European Health Report (EUR/RC51/Conf.Doc./4), 31, 19 July 2001. One preliminary study in eight different countries found a 24.7% rate of sexual violence in dating relationships. From Murray A. Straus et al., Physical and Sexual Assault on Dating Partners by University Students in Eight Countries (presented at the European Society of Criminology in Toledo, Spain, on 5 September 2002). Another WHO study indicates that between twelve and twenty-five percent of women have experienced attempted or completed forced sex by an intimate partner or ex-partner at some time. From World Health Organization, Violence Against Women: WHO Fact Sheet No. 239 (June 2000).

Research indicates that the number of women sexually assaulted in recent conflicts is staggering: "Well over 20,000 Muslim women were known to be raped in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Balkan war, and more than 15,000 were raped in one year in Rwanda." From Charlotte Bunch, The Intolerable Status Quo: Violence Against Women and Girls, in UNICEF, The Progress of Nations 41, 43 (1997).

Intimate partner sexual assault is similarly prevalent. As reported in an issue of Population Reports, respondents in a fifteen-country study

frequently mentioned being physically forced to have sex and/or to engage in types of sexual activity that they found degrading and humiliating. Others gave in to sex out of fear of the consequences of refusal, such as physical abuse, loss of economic support, or accusations of infidelity. . . . In Papua New Guinea, for example, among 95 women interviewed in depth, about half said their husbands had forced them into sex. One-third of those forced said they had been beaten into sex, and one-fifth had been harangued into it by drunken husbands. In Uttar Pradesh, India, about two-thirds of 98 respondents reported being forced into sex by their husbands—about one-third of them by beatings. 

From Ending Violence Against Women, Population Reports, Vol. 7, No. 4, December 1999.

There are indications that reporting of sexual assault incidents may be on the rise in some places, perhaps as awareness of issues relating to violence against women grows. In 1993 in Poland, for example, 1,313 rape cases were reported to police, an increase of 40 percent over 1981. From Radhika Coomaraswamy & Lisa M. Kois, Violence Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 177, 196 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999) (citing The Situation of Women in Poland, The Report of the NGOs' Committee 50 (1995)).

Finally, studies show that most women know their attacker. Relying on information from UNIFEM, the Conference of European Churches, based in Switzerland, notes that "[i]n statistics and data from 7 countries, more than 60% of sexual assault victims know their attacker." In the United States, studies show that eighty-four percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker, and fifty-seven percent occur on dates. Only 17 percent of rapists are strangers, 83 percent of perpetrators are acquaintances (friends of the family, dates, boyfriends, relatives, authority figures). From Robin Warshaw, I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape, 1988, at 11.

Many women are raped by an intimate partner. In the United States, nearly 25 percent of surveyed women said that they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former cohabiting partner, or date at some time during their lifetime. According to these estimates, approximately 1.5 million women are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. From U.S. Department of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Research Report iii (2000).

For a collection of research and reports on the prevalence of sexual assault, click here.