A new smartphone app, currently being tested in the Democratic Republic of Congo, could help doctors in areas of conflict better document the injuries of sexual assault and rape victims in order to prosecute more cases of sexual violence.
Developed by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), MediCapt allows doctors to utilize smartphone technology to photograph sexual assault victims injuries and submit medical examination to an online database. Law enforcement officials in Congo can then access the information through the database’s cloud, and use it to help prosecute the hundreds of thousands of cases of sexual violence there. Though the app is still in development, PHR hopes to expand its reach beyond the Congo to other areas of conflict around the world.
According to a United Nations report, several dozen women are raped or sexual assaulted in the Congo every hour. In July of last year, the U.N. found over 700 cases of sexual violence in the Congo’s northern region in 2013 alone, an increase of almost 600 from the same period in 2012. But according to Lauren Wolfe, the director of the Women Under Siege Project, there is little incentive for victims their to seek justice — few are taken seriously, and some are even re-attacked or shunned by their communities for doing so. For those who do speak out, she said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress, the hardest part of prosecuting these crimes is the lack of evidence that can be used in court. With little collaboration between law enforcement officials and medical examiners on what evidence should be be collected, many of these crimes stall in court and ultimately go unpunished, Wolfe said.
Karen Naimer, PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, says that over the past two years, the organization has worked with officials in the Congo to establish a more comprehensive method for documenting sexual violence. Pooling input from doctors and prosecutors, PHR helped create a 4-page, 250-question form doctors are now using to conduct medical examinations which includes information vital to prosecuting these crimes. But between the country’s faulty infrastructure and limited access to computers, collecting this information remains a challenge for law enforcement. But according to Naimer, almost everyone there has a cell phone.
So PHR created MediCapt — an app which converts the standardized form to a digital platform and pairs it with pictures of victim’s injuries taken with smartphones that can be used as vital forensic evidence by law enforcement. A prototype was launched in January in Bukavu, and over six months PHR conducted field studies on the app and trained doctors on the ground in Congo with the new technology.
“What was most useful was introducing clinicians to the promise and power of technology as a means for gathering evidence and prosecuting these crimes,” Naimer said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Some of them had never even held a smartphone before, but by the end of the first day everyone was engaged in the idea of the power this technology could bring.”
Though the app is still in development, Naimer said that PHR is currently in the process of developing the next generation and plans on doing more testing in Congo come the fall. In addition to being used for domestic court cases, the data gathered from MediCapt could eventually be used as evidence in war crimes trials against human rights violators in the Congo and other conflicts. Recently the International Criminal Court announced its intention to place a greater emphasis on rape and other forms sexual assault in war-zones as the crimes against humanity that they are.
MediCapt is part of an increased trend of the development of smartphone apps to help combat sexual violence, some of which are already being using in the United States.
Students at the University of Missouri created an app called Safe Trek, which tracks allows users to hold down a button when they are in an area that feels unsafe and the app begins tracking their location. When the users feels safe again, they let go of the button and type in a four-digit code. If the code isn’t submitted after 10 seconds, the app notifies police of the users location. The app also pools the information it collects and compiles them on maps to alert users of areas that others have reported feeling unsafe in.
School officials at Loyola University in Chicago and the University of Texas-Brownville have both launched apps which provide students with local resources on sexual violence and help spread information about sexual assault on their campuses, and a DC-non profit launched, U ASK which provides students at eight universities in the Washington DC. area access to similar information.