British medical journal The Lancet has published a report indicating the sexual assault rate in New Zealand is far higher than the world average. It placed the country third highest, alongside Australia.
Researchers looked at data from 56 countries and found that sexual violence is at endemic levels in some places.
The authors said the highly publicised rapes and murders of young women in India and South Africa had focused international attention on sexual violence.
They said 7.2 percent of women across the world aged 15 years or older reported being sexually assaulted by someone other than an intimate partner at least once in their lives.
It placed New Zealand at the third-highest rate alongside Australia, with 16.4 percent of women.
The highest rate was recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, with 21 per cent of its female population experiencing at least one instance of that type of attack. Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were in second place with 17.4 percent. India and Bangladesh reported the lowest prevalence rates.
However, advocates for sexual abuse victims are sceptical about the statistics, saying women are often too scared to report assaults which skews the figures.
Tania Bloomfield, manager of the Counselling Services Centre in South Auckland, says there is significant under-reporting in New Zealand and overseas.
"Within South Auckland we work with something like about 170 different cultures. Most of the countries that are around that Middle Eastern, South-east Asian, all those sorts of areas come in with very different world views and very different cultural upbringings about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable, which makes it really, really hard for them to actually report when things go wrong."
Ms Blomfield says women who suffer sexual assault within cultures that place a very high value on virginity tend to keep the crime a secret.
Rape Prevention Education executive director Kim McGregor says the figures are not surprising. Ms McGregor said people in many countries fear reporting rape because it can cause stigmatisation, which is why other countries have a lower rate than New Zealand's.