Last month, actress Angelina Jolie and British foreign secretary William Hague presided over a four-day summit dedicated to preventing sexual violence. The high-profile meeting, attended by NGO leaders all over the world, focused on systematic rape in war, a story told time and time again about the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The conflict raging in the eastern part of the African nation has become synonymous with rape. Militias seeking control of the state’s tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold mines (the ingredients used to make smartphones and other electronics vibrate) wield sexual torture to keep rural populations confined to certain areas. But even Congolese soldiers, as documentary film Seeds of Hope captured, do it, too. Another report in June published the stories of 34 female political activists who suffered sexual violence at the hands of the country’s own police and security forces. In 2011, American researchers found that 1,152 Congolese women were being raped every day, or 48 women an hour.
Rarely do Congolese women have an opportunity to pursue justice. Much of that has to do with how the justice system deals with rape (and, in some cases, perpetrates it), but when rape survivors do take their cases to court, medical evidence is often lacking. Rape kits are no common practice, and communities often shun the victims anyway. But for the past three years, humanitarian nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights has been trying to change how sexual violence is treated in the eastern DRC. Their latest effort comes by way of smartphone.
In January of this year, PHR launched a pilot program with seven physicians in conflict-torn South Kivu to test out the MediCapt, a digitized medical intake app tailored to rape survivors. Women often keep their traumas hidden to themselves, but sometimes fake something like a stomach ache to go to doctors and seek treatment for their injuries, says PHR sexual violence program senior officer Sucharita Varanasi. But even though doctors are likely some of the first people to know when a rape occurs, they lack a record-keeping system to take note of survivors’ injuries and preserve the evidence over time.
“Clinicians are generally the first responders to these crimes,” explains Varanasi. “We also work with law enforcement, and there are legal factors as well. Without those key players, you would lack the necessary ingredients for a successful prosecution.”
In its current iteration, the MediCapt takes down information detailing a survivor’s injuries, a basic description of the suspect, and images of the wounds. The doctor then files the report to an online server that can only be accessed by law enforcement with the proper encryption keys.
Which also brings us to the MediCapt’s main conceptual knot: Security. If information about a woman’s rape and her identity were to leak to her community, it wouldn’t only be emotionally devastating, but could put the victim at risk of even more physical harm. And even if PHR were able to successfully encrypt the data in such a way that only doctors, law enforcement, and the victim herself were able to access the information, sometimes police officers themselves are the rapists. If the justice system itself perpetrates the crime, it’s unlikely any amount of medical evidence might help.
Varanasi acknowledges that security is a major concern. But it’s only one of many. Some of the doctors PHR worked with had never used a smartphone before. And in a country without a standard rape kit procedure, how are rape survivors supposed to give informed consent to a doctor documenting their injuries with a new piece of technology?
Varanasi says that the issues mentioned above remain major hurdles to overcome. But they’ll also be the focus of a second pilot for MediCapt 2.0 launching at the end of this year.
“We’re in the very early stages of development right now,” she adds. “We really want to keep the survivor at the center at all of this. They are the reason we’re doing this.”
PHR hasn’t actually used the app with any rape survivors yet. Instead, the physicians are still trying to develop the best version that doctors will actually use.