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In Syria, Can Crowdmapping Technology Help Women Under Siege Find Justice?

BY Anna Therese Day | Tuesday, February 26 2013

Screenshot from Women Under Siege: Syria.

Note: Please scroll to the bottom to read a correction.

Najlaa's indignant voice softens as she begins to recount a horrifying series of sexual assaults from the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since the summer of 2012, Najlaa*, a Syrian activist and mother-of-two, has joined other organizers on the ground in collecting accounts of the use of sexual violence by both the Syrian government and opposition forces. She concludes with the story of teenage girl who was sexually brutalized by a pro-government militia with blunt objects and, allegedly, a mouse.

"...And I could go on," she ends throwing her hands in the air, exasperated. "Each time I hear the news of a new battle, I don't think, "Thank God! We're closer to Free Syria!" Now I think "How many of our daughters and sisters paid a price?"

The Syrian war enters its third year in March 2013. Since the uprising began, an estimated 60,000 Syrians have been killed, and several million Syrians have been displaced. In January, the UN made an appeal for $1 billion for the first six months of 2013 in order to provide basic services for the estimated 400,000 refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The combination of competing neighboring interests and the civilian spillover makes the Syrian civil war one of the most significant regional catastrophes in recent history.


Najlaa, the Syrian human rights activist.

"At first, it was confusing and heartbreaking that the world did nothing when the violence started," said Najlaa. "But after months, now years, we Syrians have become used to the world’s neglect. You abandoned us a long time ago so we are organizing to do what we can, maybe some day we will make our own justice."

With a political stalemate continuing within the UN security council, decisive international intervention has been delayed despite the civilian catastrophe. Last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced a fresh appeal to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte released her commission's latest report on possible human rights violations in Syria, noting that the investigators have already identified a list of suspects in leadership positions and are encouraging the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC.

"In terms of delays at the Security Council, I would like to see Russia shamed into realizing that dragging its feet is causing untold harm to Syrian civilians," says Lauren Wolfe, Director of Women Under Siege.

The Women's Media Center, a US-based NGO that works toward the goal of making women more visible and powerful in the media, launched Women Under Siege in 2012 as an initiative to document how rape is used as a weapon of war and to organize for legal and political responses to these crimes. The purpose of the Syria crowd-mapping campaign is to document in real time the use of sexual violence in the Syrian conflict.

"The goals of the project are threefold, explains Wolfe. "[Firstly] to put the stories of what women and men are suffering in terms of sexualized violence on the map — literally and figuratively; [secondly] to create a base of documentation that might be used toward evidence if there are to be war crime trials; [and thirdly] to figure out where people may need survivor services, both psychological and medical."

The technology employed, Ushahidi crowd-mapping software, allows survivors to report incidents of sexual violence through the Women Under Siege site, by email (siege@womensmediacenter.com), or by Twitter using the hashtag #RapeInSyria. The result is a striking visual representation of the rampant use of sexual violence in Syria, including the location as well as additional information about the individual involved.

Women Under Siege explains that the crowdmapping approach allows the voices of the survivors to be heard across the ether so they remain anonymous yet strong.

Ushahidi, a nonprofit crowd-mapping software company was originally established in Nairobi in 2008 and has since been utilized over 40,000 times in locations all over the world, from Kenya to Egypt. Within the context of the ongoing war in Syria, Ushahidi technology is being used in an innovative new trial. It is actually the first time crowd-sourcing has been used to track sexualized violence in an ongoing war, explains Wolfe.

The team at Women Under Siege and their partners at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health are working with Syrian civil society groups on the ground. Their work has been recognized by the White House, the US State Department, the UK Foreign Office, and the United Nations and remains open to the public for future action and coordination. Wolfe herself is mentioned frequently in the international media; she also gives many public talks on sexual violence in Syria. Yet despite their urgency and tireless dedication, they still face several major challenges in information-gathering and verification.


Syrian woman in her tent at a refugee camp.

"It's been quite hard to get close to anyone who may want to speak. The stigma has been too great," said Wolfe. "There are excellent people working to buttress civil society from abroad, but there needs to be greater coordination on the ground (from what I understand) to gather testimonies and offer help to those who need it."

In addition to the challenges of access, verification represents the second major challenge to the Syria crowdmapping initiative. "Verifying information is incredibly difficult while the regime keeps out journalists and human rights observers," says Wolfe. Currently, the site marks all reports as unverified, even reports from sources like the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

"I've consulted with human rights investigators and lawyers to ensure that we're documenting our reports in ways that will be useful in future trials and have been told that we are," explains Wolfe, adding that they hope to launch a new phase of the project which will include triangulation and other methods of verification. "But for now, we will continue gathering what we can and hope that the world wakes up yesterday to this brutality."

Meanwhile, organizers like Najlaa continue their grassroots efforts inside Syria and throughout the ever-growing refugee communities in countries across the Middle East. "I am proud of what we are doing to support the families who are being torn up by this humiliation," she explains. "But what we are doing is just a bandage on a wound. They will continue to target our honor until the violence stops, until we end the war."

*For security reasons, Najlaa requested that her surname not be published.

Correction: In the original version of this article, we mistakenly reported that Women Under Siege works in coordination with the White House, the US State Department, the UK Foreign Office, and the United Nations. Women Under Siege is not affiliated with any government; it is an independent organization whose work is public information available to all. The text has been changed for accuracy.

Anna Therese Day is an independent journalist based in the Middle East and North Africa. You can follow her on the ground on Twitter at @AnnaOfArabia or on Facebook at Facebook.com/AnnaThereseDay.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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