Archive | March, 2012

Crowdmapping: The latest tool in documenting sexual violence

30 Mar

Technology and social media have played a crucial role in the Arab Spring uprisings. Various social media networks have proven to be useful tools in not only organizing the uprisings, but getting  information about events on the ground back out to the world-at-large . This has been particularly important in places like Syria, where access for independent media, as well as, humanitarian investigators is nearly non-existent. Information is a necessity for  policy makers, aid groups and the public, if we are to respond  effectively and promptly to crises. In an effort to harness the power of  social media  in delivering information, Women Under Siege, in partnership with a Harvard-based doctor, an epidemiologist from Columbia University and Syrian activists, recently launched a new initiative utilizing crowdmapping technology to document sexual violence in Syria.

Women Under Siege is encouraging, survivors, witnesses, and medical or humanitarian personnel working with Syrian refugees to submit reports of sexual violence, including the nature and degree of the assaults, locations and any information available about the perpetrators to the organization via email, twitter or the website This technology allows sexually-based violence to be reported in real-time, as opposed to months or even years later, as is often the case.  An email released by the Women’s Media Center, which Women Under Siege is a project of, states that “By plotting each story on a map, the project shines a light on the full scale of the war going on in Syria—which includes sexualized violence—and gathers valuable data that can help us detect the vital signs of the Syrian conflict zone and point aid workers toward existing needs for survivor services.” There is also hope that this information may even be able to be used to help with prosecutions, which are crucial for bringing an end to the culture of impunity that often protects perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts.

Their efforts in Syria have even received the stamp of approval from Margot Wallström, UN special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict. “More and better information about conflict-related sexual violence is crucial. Talking about this issue is a first step, because only then can we help break what has been called history’s greatest silence. And using modern information technology to this end is very welcome.”

The project is not without risks. Often survivors and witnesses have concerns about possible retribution for reporting  cases of sexual assault or other forms of violence in conflicts to anyone, let alone through a very public and traceable forum like the internet. It’s a fear that’s not unfounded. Eman al-Obeidi, was held in detention in Libya by Ghaddafi security forces last year after she reported being gang raped to a crowd of international reporters at a hotel in Tripoli and a Sudanese women, Safiya Eshaq, fled from her home in Khartoum to South Sudan after she spoke out about her alleged attack by Sudanese security forces. Women Under Siege, in an effort to mitigate security concerns, allows for reports to be submitted anonymously and provides suggestions for increasing individuals digital security.

Many of the reports mapped so far have been from media sources, but the group told the New York Times that they have other reports from individuals which are currently being “assessed”. Due to the lack of formal independent media or human rights investigations on the ground in Syria few of the attacks reported can be official verified.

We can’t respond to or prevent issues that we don’t understand, don’t acknowledge, or don’t know about. Women Under Siege’s initiative seek to address these each of these problems. If successful, the project may prove invaluable in data collection and raising the public consciousness of these issues. Also, the success of this initiative (and others like it**) will continue to promote the creative use of social networking technology to monitor conflicts, violence, humanitarian needs etc.

** Crowdmapping is also being used by other groups to monitor general levels of violence and human rights violations in Syria. It was also previously used to track election violence in Kenya.


International Women’s Day: Focus on Women in Conflict Areas

8 Mar

This blog was originally written for United to End Genocide in honor of International Women’s Day

Today serves as a day to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions that women around the world have made to their societies. However, it is also a day to reflect on the challenges that women continue to confront.  Perhaps nowhere are these challenges more prominent than in conflict zones, where women are faced with having to protect themselves and their families as they strive for peace in their communities. Violence against women is a tragic theme that touches every conflict our organization works on.

Violence Against Women in United to End Genocide Conflict Areas

In Darfur, women face brutal attacks when Janjaweed militias or government troops storm their villages. These women continue to remain vulnerable in refugee and internally displaced person camps, particularly when collecting firewood or water. These women have reported having to make unbelievable choices – send their husbands or sons out to collect the wood where they would be killed, or make the journey themselves and be raped.

For months, rumors have been circulating about the use of sexual violence in Syria. While many of the confirmed victims have been boys and men, UN officials believe women are largely underreporting rapes. Syrian security forces have also found that the threat of raping the female relatives of detainees can be used as a form of coercion.

Since last March, more than 80 cases of rape have been reported by human rights groups on the Thai – Burma border. Meanwhile, a recent flair-up of violence in the minority state of Kachin has sent refugees fleeing across the Chinese border with horrific tales of violent rapes by Burmese soldiers.

Sexual violence is an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the UN Special Representative Margot Wallström on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence has called “the rape capital of the world”.

International Community’s Response to Violence Against Women

For centuries, this type of violence against women was seen as an unfortunate side effect, or even a spoil of war. However, today mass rape is increasingly recognized as a strategic tactic and weapon of war and the orchestrators of these atrocities can now face charges of crimes against humanity. Since that time, the international community has made attempts to curb sexual and gender-based violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and mitigate the other effects of conflict on women.

These efforts have been welcome progress, but much more still needs to be done to address the needs of women in conflict. While UN resolutions 1325 and 1820 laid out specific requirements for states to consider gender perspectives when addressing conflicts, conflict-related humanitarian crises, and peace processes, neither resolution has been fully implemented.

Today, too many women are still being targeted by government forces and rebels around the world, who know that attacking them will help break down the societies they are trying desperately to control. Survivors of violence and sexual assault often lack access to proper medical and psychosocial services. Displaced women rarely have safe or secure access to even basic necessities such as food and water. Too often the voices of women are still absent from crucial negotiations that could bring their communities peace.

Everyday women’s rights and human rights advocates — both those affected by conflict and elsewhere around the world — work tirelessly to keep these issues on the global agenda, so that future generations will never know these atrocities. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember the mothers, sisters and daughters living in areas of conflict and to ensure that their voices are not silenced.