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 WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com. 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.

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