As military forces in conflicts in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) continue to target non-combatants, civilians are deploying digital technologies to protect themselves from human rights abuses, including sexual violence.
“The entire field of humanitarian work has suddenly shifted — we have a remarkable opportunity to engage otherwise disenfranchised voices around the world through technology,” said Lauren Wolfe, director of the advocacy project ‘Women Under Siege'. Part of the Women's Media Center, a NewYork-based advocacy group, ‘Women Under Siege' employed crowd-sourced maps to document sexual assaults in Syria. Drawing on that data, Wolfe recently penned an article describing a “massive rape crisis” that country.
Wolfe's work also highlights another disturbing feature: the ongoing failure of the United Nations to protect civilians. On Syria, political gridlock has paralyzed the UN and left it largely absent where it is needed most. Meanwhile, armed groups continue to exploit insecurity and prey on civilians with impunity, using sexual violence as a weapon.
As a result, evolving technologies are now bolstering and even replacing traditional gender protection efforts. New tools like smartphone apps are helping civilians identify potential dangers, connect people to nearby allies and even document rights violations.
Angelina Jolie's recent challenge to the UN Security Council to lead a fight against sexual violence in conflict zones around the world signals the need for a wider commitment to address the problem.
Technology may be one of the new, effective weapons for that fight. In the past year, social media helped provoke public outrage and gather evidence in sexual assaults in Steubenville, Ohio, and New Delhi, India. In 2011, United Nations Women launched a five-year “Safe Cities” initiative to increase protections for women against sexual assault in urban areas. Tech-giant Microsoft is developing mobile technology for that campaign.
Dr. Galya Ruffer, Director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University, believes technology can protect civilians in conflict situations in two important ways: documentation and prevention.
Ruffer worked on Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced mapping tool to document rights abuses. Ruffer's work focused on the DRC, which also hosts a large but problematic UN mission.
In the DRC, where mass atrocities can be completely overlooked, Ruffer believes documentation of abuses enables individuals to identify patterns of abuse and areas to avoid.
She thinks documentation could also yield dramatic outcomes, such as prosecutions against human rights violators or policy-level changes to strengthen civilian protections. But such processes can lag and are beset by challenges like incomplete data and improper verification, rendering that testimony inadmissible as evidence to bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A smartphone app created by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) hopes to address many of those problems. The app enables medical personnel to quickly and systematically collect information from sexual violence victims.
In a press release, PHR states the app will “help preserve forensic evidence of mass atrocities, including sexual violence and torture that can be used in courts.” The app won the US government-sponsored “2013 Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention” and is now deployed in the DRC.
PHR's app underlines other challenges: access to technologies and the ability to manipulate them. Although hand-held devices are ideal for unstable situations, like the DRC, poor phone networks and outdated handsets can render smartphone apps useless to many.
“In the developing world and in conflict zones, you want to rely on the least amount of technology possible,” said Christine Corbett, chief engineer for the mobile app “Circle of 6,” which identifies six trusted friends near the user who can provide an escort, shelter or assist in moments of distress. “Circle of 6,” Corbett says, can also run on basic cellphones.
A project of the technology firm, Tech4Good, “Circle of 6” won the White House's “Apps Against Abuse Challenge in 2011.” Originally designed to help women on US college campuses, the “Circle of 6” team created a version in Hindi after observing numerous downloads from India following a high profile gang rape in New Delhi. That version launched in India this April.
Nancy Schwartzman, co-creator of “Circle of 6,” thinks mobile apps can address some of the acute challenges posed by conflict zones, such as the loss of social cohesion and trust.
“In contexts where civilians are vulnerable, technology can help seek out allies and resources both inside the community and outside the community, building bridges and opening up opportunities and lifelines through communication, breakdown of isolation and connection,” she said.
“Journalists have asked, ‘Is this app replacing institutions?'” she said. “I wouldn't go that far, we totally need the resources, we need the NGOs, we need the infrastructure. But it's really calling on the most basic thing, which is your relationships.”
Technology can contribute to rebuilding the process of protecting the vulnerable, even in places where there is weak protection of civilians or hostile regimes.
Jefferson Mok is a student in the Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He previously worked in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.