Creative Destruction

September 13, 2006

Evolution of a Myth: More on that 80% Figure

Filed under: Feminist Issues,Statistical Method,War — Daran @ 5:00 am

Unsatisfied with merely showing that the claim that “80% of war casualties are women and children” was misattributed to the ICRC. I decided to see if I could trace the statistic back to its origin. After all, the figure could still have a basis in well-founded research. After several hours of intensive Googling, I was able to trace it back to a claim in a 2002 edition of the Refugee magazine published by the UNHCR, which itself was derived, at least in part, from a UNICEF report published to 1996. The claim in the UNICEF report, however states only that women and children are 80% of displaced people. Finally I unearthed the real ICRC figure, which is that less than 26% of war casualties are women and children.

Below the fold, I describe my search in more detail

Here’s the claim as it was made by Lubna Jerar Naqvi in the Japan Times Online:

According to a report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross, titled ‘Women and War’ and based on two years of research from 1998 to 1999, approximately 80 percent of war victims are women and children. This is mainly because military conflicts now more commonly engulf towns and cities instead of only frontline areas.

(All emphasis within quotes are mine, unless I indicate otherwise.)

Morgaine’s version:

80% of the casualties of war are women and children, who NEVER have the political power to prevent it.

Note the subtle change in wording from “victims” to “casualties”. Now, I don’t know what Naqvi means by “victim”; it’s possible that even she(?) doesn’t know what it means, if she was quoting someone else, but the word can obviously be construed rather broadly. Anyone adversely affected by a war could legitimately be described as a “victim”. Although “casualty” could be construed that broadly, the word strongly suggests a narrower interpretation: Someone killed or injured.

Here’s how “Athena” interprets Morgaine’s rendition in a comment

Maybe more women and children are killed because men are beginning to recognize at some level that we’re more important than they are.

Athena is not here responding to the article because Morgaine hadn’t at this point referenced it. So we can see how in just two iterations of paraphrasing, the claim has morphed from being about vague, widely-construable “victims” to fatalities.

So where did Naqvi get her figure? Not from the ICRC report she cited, because it makes no such claim. Did she make it up out of the whole cloth? It’s not unheard of for journalists to invent facts, but it seems a bit improbable. More likely she got the figure from somewhere else, and just got mixed up about her source. Or perhaps her direct source mistakenly attributed it to the ICRC, and Naqvi, like Morgaine didn’t bother to check her facts. Whatever. If it ultimately came from a reputable source, if it’s based on sound statistical analysis, and if the claim hasn’t been paraphrased and morphed beyond recognition, then Morgaine is right and I’m wrong. So I felt I ought at least to try to track the figure down.

A quick Google turns up an intriguing possibility. 80% is widely (and apparently soundly) cited as the proportion of refugees who are women and children. Could that be the source? It’s not difficult to image a claim about “refugees” morphing into one about victims in just one or two hops. If that’s what happened, then Athena’s version is truly ironic. A claim about “refugees” is essentially a claim about the survivors of conflict, not about those killed.

Is there any evidence that this is what might have happened? Alternatively, that the figure came from somewhere else? As I carried on searching, a pattern began to emerge: documents which made the 80% claim about women and children often also claimed that 90% of all war victims were civilians. Many of these said also that this figure had increased from 5% over some period of time.

Unsurprisingly, many of the returns cited no source. Some cited the UN. Others were more specific – the UNHCR or UNICEF. Very few actually referred to a specific document, Eventually I found this 2002 edition of Refugees Magazine:

The majority of people flee their homes because of war and the proportion of war victims who are civilians leaped in recent decades from five percent to over 90 percent of casualties. Eighty percent of casualties by small arms are women and children, who far outnumber military casualties.

One would hope that a UNHCR publication would be a source of reliable information. It is not, however, a source of authoritative information. It cites no sources; there’s no discussion about methodology; it’s not clear if it intends to refer to all war casualties or just those who were refugees at the time. We don’t know who wrote it, or what their qualifications are. There’s a disclaimer in the PDF file (Though not the webpage) to the effect that the contents of the magazine reflect the views of the contributors and are not necessarily those of the UNHCR. Finally nowhere in the statistics section of the UNHCR website can I find anything to corroborate the claim.

It does, however, give me one more clue – the reference to “small arms”. If 80% of the victims of these weapons are women and children, then surely the people behind the Small Arms Survey would know about it.

Well, they certainly know about the claim, they just don’t think much of it. According to their 2002 Yearbook one of several “challenge[s] associated with collecting statistics on the humanitarian impacts of small arms” is “The tendency of public or private agencies to exaggerate“. (Their emphasis). They go on to say:

The relief and development communities frequently generate inaccurate and inflated numbers, whether out of ignorance or intentionally, to justify programmatic interventions and to mobilize public opinion. Figures are often cited without any empirical foundation. For example, are 90 per cent of small arms-related casualties in conflict really civilians, as many UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs claim? Are 80 per cent of these really women and children? Are there really 300,000 child soldiers fighting in today’s wars? Do we have sufficient or verified data to validate these figures or are they politically expedient estimations? Though potentially useful for advocacy purposes, loose approximations can unintentionally and detrimentally reorient debates from substance to credibility.

(See Box 4.1.)

Another researcher writes:

The evidence supporting the assumption that small arms are the greatest casualty producers within the context described is largely hearsay and anecdotal. Statements contained in some of the advocacy literature on SALW control suggesting that 80 percent of all casualties in conflict are women and children (this does not appear to include male non-combatants) or that 90 percent of all casualties are caused by small arms are not supported by reliable statistical evidence. Most of the execution-style murders facilitated by small arms in the Balkans were directed against males, while indiscriminate casualties to women and children were the product of explosive ordnance.

But this still doesn’t tell me how the original claim arose. Later on (box 4.4) in the SAS Yearbook cited above is another clue. With reference to the 80% and 90% statistics is says “These two statistics were widely cited in the mid-1990s without reference to a methodology describing how the figure was actually determined”. The original source, therefore, must date from that era or before, which means in particular, that the 2002 edition of Refugee magazine can’t be the original source.

Drawing a blank on the 80% figure, I turned my attention to the other part of the claim from the magazine – that the number of civilian casualties had increased from 5% to 90%. Eventually I found this UNICEF report.

Distinctions between combatants and civilians disappear in battles fought from village to village or from street to street. In recent decades, the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leaped dramatically from 5 per cent to over 90 per cent. The struggles that claim more civilians than soldiers have been marked by horrific levels of violence and brutality. Any and all tactics are employed, from systematic rape, to scorched-earth tactics that destroy crops and poison wells, to ethnic cleansing and genocide. With all standards abandoned, human rights violations against children and women occur in unprecedented numbers. Increasingly, children have become the targets and even the perpetrators of violence and atrocities.

Children seek protection in networks of social support, but these have been undermined by new political and economic realities. Conflict and violent social change have affected social welfare networks between families and communities. Rapid urbanization and the spread of market-based values have also helped erode systems of support that were once based on the extended family.

Unbridled attacks on civilians and rural communities have provoked mass exoduses and the displacement of entire populations who flee conflict in search of elusive sanctuaries within and outside their national borders. Among these uprooted millions, it is estimated that 80 per cent are children and women.

Involving children as soldiers has been made easier by the proliferation of inexpensive light weapons. Previously, the more dangerous weapons were either heavy or complex, but these guns are so light that children can use them and so simple that they can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10. The international arms trade has made assault rifles cheap and widely available so the poorest communities now have access to deadly weapons capable of transforming any local conflict into a bloody slaughter. In Uganda, an AK-47 automatic machine gun can be purchased for the cost of a chicken and, in northern Kenya, it can be bought for the price of a goat.

It’s interesting to compare this extract with the claim as it appeared in Refugee Magazine. In the space of four consecutive paragraphs within the UNICEF report we see:

  1. A claim that civilian casualties have increased from 5% to 90%, followed by
  2. A claim that women and children are 80% of displaced people, followed by
  3. A discussion about “light weapons”.

The Refugee Magazine claim consisted of:

  1. A nearly word-identical claim about civilian casualties increasing from 5% to 90%, followed by
  2. A claim that women and children are 80% of casualties
  3. …of “small arms”.

I conjecture that what happened is that these four paragraphs got summarised and paraphrased repeatedly until they were morphed into the claim as it appeared in Refugee Magazine. Subsequent iterations dropped the reference to “small arms”. How it got attached to the ICRC, I don’t know; I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this attribution predates the article in the Japan Times. But this is a side issue.

I can’t prove that this is what happened. Perhaps the 80% figure came from some other source, and got tacked onto the bit that came from the UNICEF report. But until someone can find an authoritative source it remains a Factoid From Nowhere, with no credibility when compared to the real ICRC figure, based on actual counts of victims which is that more than 74% of all casualties (and more than 82% of small arms casualties), are men between the ages of 16 and 49.

(Edited for spelling)


  1. OMG! I found another gee…., uh, fellow that is as interested in tracking down the numbers and reading them persoanlly as I hope to be!You are going on my blogroll, pal!

    Comment by Deep Thought — September 15, 2006 @ 7:36 am | Reply

  2. All blogrollings gratefully received, thank you.

    Comment by Daran — September 15, 2006 @ 10:17 am | Reply

  3. To be sure, this is some fine blogging. Kudos to Daran and Creative Destruction.

    Comment by nobody.really — September 15, 2006 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

  4. […] In recent posts, I’ve been debunking the myth – mistakenly attributed to the ICRC – that women and children are 80% of war casualties. Here I summarise and discuss the findings of four papers from the peer reviewed British Medical Journal, all of which which were based on patient data from Red Cross and Red Crescent Hospitals. (See also my Analaysis of the figures given in the Lancet study on the war in Iraq.) […]

    Pingback by What the ICRC really tells us about War Casualties « Creative Destruction — September 16, 2006 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  5. […] most war casualties are civilian, and then only superficially, when it came up in connection with a similar claim concerning women and children. I wrote back then about how the terms ‘casualty’ and ‘victim’ were open to […]

    Pingback by Feminist Critics — October 25, 2007 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  6. […] is a repost of an article originally posted at Creative Destruction. Comments older than Wednesday 10 January 2007 were originally posted there. See this post for […]

    Pingback by Evolution of a Myth: More on that 80% Figure | Feminist Critics — August 20, 2012 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: