New Weapon to Fight Rape in African Wars Is Mobile-Phone App

  • Investigators look to handheld technology to help prosecutions
  • Groups in South Africa, Congo, Kenya, Malawi make strides

Thierry Nasibu Ntumba was treating a bleeding 14-year-old girl found last year near a sugar cane field in conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Realizing that rape, not bullets, had nearly caused her death, he reached for his mobile phone.

Ntumba, a 39-year-old physician, recorded the wounds to her genitals and thighs in digital forms and photos at his clinic using a trial version of a new mobile-phone application, MediCapt, developed by Physicians for Human Rights’ Program on Sexual Violence, then printed and sent the files to the police. The evidence helped the prosecution win its case against the man charged with the crime.

The MediCapt App developed by Physicians for Human Rights.
The MediCapt App developed by Physicians for Human Rights.
Source: Physicians for Human Rights

“The sexual predator was arrested and condemned to 20 years in prison,” Ntumba said by phone from Minova, a town where four years ago the mass attack of almost 80 women resulted in two soldiers being convicted of rape. “Now with the phone app MediCapt, I have had a lot of success when taking on rape cases.”

MediCapt is one of several new mobile-phone applications designed to bring justice for the victims of rape, which has plagued war zones from time immemorial to modern conflict areas from Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria to Sudan’s western region of Darfur. Rape has been carried out by soldiers during conflicts including the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, by militias patrolling Congo’s jungles to protect illegal mining, and even by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

Sexual violence harmed nearly 12,000 women during the first nine months of 2014 in the often lawless eastern Congo provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Orientale, Katanga and Maniema, according to the latest report from the United Nations. About 40 percent of the crimes were perpetrated by armed groups including militias and national armies, the UN said. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom called the area the rape capital of the world in 2011 when she was a special UN envoy on sexual violence during the armed conflict.

“The roads in the DRC, if they exist, are extremely poor, paper and pens are wanting, yet the mobile-phone penetration is deep and wide,” said Karen Naimer, a spokeswoman based in New York for Physicians for Human Rights. “We instantly saw that mobile technology could also support the evidence collection, documentation and preservation needed in sexual violence cases. It was obvious.”

Evidence Collection

Physicians for Human Rights plans to distribute MediCapt to more health and justice workers in the Congo later this year after smoothing out kinks picked up during the testing phase, Naimer said. The group will address linking clinics and police through cloud computing, she said.

“We will roll out this app in both urban and remote areas, so we will assess how both hardware and connectivity work during the soft launch,” Naimer said. “We will equip select police officers with the hardware for this pilot.”

The app will store information in a database for encrypted access by doctors, social workers and forensics teams even if internet connectivity is lost by updating the system when the connection is restored, Naimer said.

Toronto-based advocacy group Equality Effect intends to role out a know-your-rights information portal for mobiles in Kenya by year end and is considering Malawi and Ghana, Chief Executive Officer Fiona Sampson said by phone. It will be followed by an evidence-collection app for police within a year, she said.

Election Violence

The groups are targeting Kenya even though it lacks full-blown conflict because of the International Criminal Court’s investigation of violence including rape after the 2007 election. They’re also acting after a High Court ruling in the “160 girls” case that found police inaction created a climate of impunity for defilement. The girls, between the age of 3 and 17, had sued the government for failing to protect them from being raped.

That impunity is often at the end of a gun. Film star Angelina Jolie has called attention to the Islamic State’s use of rape as part of its ideology in Syria and Iraq. Authorities are investigating UN and French troops, as well those from other countries, for rape in the Central African Republic after peacekeepers intervened in 2013 to quell sectarian violence following the ouster of President Francois Bozize.

Rape Crisis

The Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust in South Africa, where 62,649 sexual offenses were reported in the 12 months to October, is making a mobile-friendly website to encourage counseling and is working on a road-to-justice app that helps survivors navigate health care and courts when a myriad of agencies use different systems, spokeswoman Sarah Strydom said. The trust doesn’t favor an evidence-collection app for personal protection reasons, she said.

Thierry Nasibu Ntumba
Thierry Nasibu Ntumba
Source: Physicians for Human Rights

“It sends a message that women must arm themselves with the latest devices and apps to protect themselves when the onus is really on the criminal justice system and the perpetrator to not rape,” Strydom said.

Back in Minova, about 60 km (37 miles) from Goma on the Congo-Rwanda border, Ntumba racks up small victories with new technology while complaining that armed groups still roam the area laden with refugee camps that burden his clinic.

“We’re working hard even without government support,” he said. “We lack funds that enable holistic treatment. This girl’s case was a success because she received medical care and was referred to justice officials. We’d just like to get more partners who can help us with rape victims.”

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