"One in three women is sexually assaulted on the dangerous journey north."

Donald Trump on Saturday, January 19th, 2019 in a speech

Trump said 1 in 3 migrant women is sexually assaulted in journey to the United States. Is that true?

In an attempt to get Democrats to approve funding for a border wall with Mexico, President Donald Trump said there were tragic consequences to illegal immigration. He offered as an example statistics on women sexually assaulted on their journey to the United States.

"One in three women is sexually assaulted on the dangerous journey north," Trump said Jan. 19. "In fact, many loving mothers give their young daughters birth control pills for the long journey up to the United States because they know they may be raped or sexually accosted or assaulted."

Trump noted the 1-in-3 figure during a televised proposal to end the government shutdown. Trump is seeking $5.7 billion for a border wall. In exchange, he offered to continue a temporary protection from deportation for so-called Dreamers, young immigrants in the country illegally, and for immigrants with expiring Temporary Protected Status.

PolitiFact wondered about the accuracy of Trump’s statement on the number of women sexually assaulted.

Advocates for immigrant rights have long stressed that migrants coming to the United States illegally face dangers along the journey, including sexual abuse. A definitive number or percentage of women abused is difficult to determine; not all people report the abuse, not all women making the journey are interviewed, and overall, data is limited.

"The percentage of women who have been sexually abused or assaulted is all over the place, since there is no single representative sample of all the women who cross Mexico to reach the United States," said Nestor P. Rodriguez, a sociology professor and a research associate of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas.

Rodriguez said he's heard from immigrant and refugee advocates higher percentages of women abused or assaulted, but those figures are not based on a representative sample of all women who cross Mexico.

The White House did not respond to PolitiFact’s request for information. But we found a similar claim posted on the White House website citing a 2017 Doctors Without Borders report.

A May 2017 report from Doctors Without Borders said that of more than 400 people surveyed in Mexico at facilities that help migrants, 31.4 percent of women had been sexually abused during their transit through Mexico. (The majority of migrants interviewed were men.) The findings provided a "snapshot in time" drawing from a population accessible to the medical group, and was not necessarily representative of all migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States, the report said.

Overview of Doctors Without Borders report

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) gives medical and mental health care to migrants and refugees fleeing violence in Central America and traveling through Mexico.

The migrants and refugees are "preyed upon by criminal organizations, sometimes with the tacit approval or complicity of national authorities, and subjected to violence and other abuses," including abduction, theft, extortion, torture, and rape, the group said.

For its 2017 report, Doctors Without Borders reviewed medical data from 2015 through December 2016 and a 2015 survey of 467 people encountered in "albergues," the hostels, mobile health clinics and centers where migrants seek food, shelter, information, and health care.

A significant number of migrants reported sexual violence, unwanted sex, and transactional sex in exchange for shelter, protection or for money, the report said.

"Considering a comprehensive definition of those categories, out of the 429 migrants and refugees that answered (sexual and gender-based violence) questions, 31.4 percent of women and 17.2 percent of men had been sexually abused during their transit through Mexico," the report said.

"Considering only rape and other forms of direct sexual violence, 10.7 percent of women and 4.4 percent of men were affected during their transit through Mexico," it added.

(Doctors Without Borders did not use the term sexual assault, as Trump did; it used the term sexual abuse to describe various types of sexual violence against women and men.)

The report said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) "avoids drawing sweeping conclusions; however the survey provides valuable information about the realities that many people on this route experienced, in a specific time period, as reported to MSF teams."

Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, in a December speech during an immigration conference in Morocco, also said that one-third of women reported being sexually abused during their transit toward the United States.

People in Mexico and Central America "know of the suffering they will experience as they take to the road. But even the knowledge of such risk does not deter them," Liu said.  

"Women and girls seek contraception because they simply expect to be raped during their journeys," Liu said. "People are forced to choose between the violence of home and the distant possibility of a future with hope."

Our ruling

Trump said, "One in three women is sexually assaulted on the dangerous journey north."

A 2017 report from Doctors Without Borders said 31.4 percent of women had been sexually abused during their transit through Mexico. That's based on a 2015 survey of more than 400 migrants interviewed in facilities where migrants seek assistance. (The majority of migrants interviewed were men.)

Doctors Without Borders said its report provided a snapshot in time of the perils migrants face, but said it wasn’t necessarily representative of the entire migrant population traveling through Mexico.

Trump’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

Share the Facts
PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Half True
"One in three women is sexually assaulted on the dangerous journey north."
in a speech
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Clarification: We updated this story Feb. 1, 2019 to clarify that the majority of migrants interviewed by Doctors Without Borders were men.