What difference could a mobile app make in ending wartime rape?

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 June 2014 07:24 GMT

In a 2008 file photo, people displaced by fighting wait for aid to be distributed at the village of Ntamugenga in eastern Congo. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

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Physicians for Human Rights is developing an app to help doctors document evidence of sexual violence

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Lost records, insufficient evidence, poor roads that cut off access to remote areas where crimes are taking place, long delays in the judicial process.

These are just some of the obstacles to prosecuting sexual violence in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, where some of the worst cases of wartime rape have taken place.

But a U.S. non-profit organisation, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), believes a mobile app it is developing could help to secure more convictions by assisting clinicians in areas with scarce resources to better collect and document evidence of sexual violence.

"It's the app that takes the information from the exam room to the court room," said PHR expert medical consultant Ranit Mishori on the sidelines of a four-day global summit to end sexual violence in conflict.

Hosted by British Foreign Minister William Hague and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, the summit on Wednesday launched an international protocol - guidelines - to improve the way evidence of wartime rape is collected to achieve more convictions and make sure commanding officers are charged.

PHR's app, MediCapt, works by prompting the clinician to answer a series of questions ranging from whether the patient is male or female and their age - if it is known - to which injuries have occurred and where on the body.

Details about the perpetrators of the crime are also recorded.

"One of the key features of the app is the prompting of physicians to actually to remember to ask - were they wearing a uniform? What language were they speaking?  - so that this information can be later used to track down perpetrators or at least find trends in who the perpetrators are," Mishori told Thomson Reuters Foundation.


The app - a digitised version of the standard medical form filled in by physicians for submission in court as evidence in sexual violence cases - also allows for photographs to be taken.

"The hope is that once you have a comprehensive forensic case, that everything would be stored on a cloud, so that the information can then be transferred to law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges," said Sucharita Varanasi, senior programme officer at PHR, which works in 17 countries including Congo, Kenya and Chad.

"The beauty of it is that you would be able to input all the information directly and then it would be stored and preserved for future use."

An early prototype of the app was tested in and around Bukavu, in eastern Congo in January, with more trials planned in other countries.

Although mobile phone usage has exploded across Africa over the last decade, transforming daily life for millions, there is still poor or no reception outside many of the towns - a problem for downloading photos or storing large files.

Varanasi said early testing of the app in Congo had highlighted the need to be able to use it offline.

Congolese doctor Thierry Nasibu from Minova said the app, once finalised, would improve patient confidentiality by reducing the risk of records going missing or being tampered with.

Another Congolese doctor, who also tested the app, Sandrine Masango Kaboya from Uvira, said   the process was too time-consuming and required answers to 250 questions.

"Sometimes we can receive a case where an entire family has been raped, so you can imagine what that entails to answer 250 questions," she told a panel discussion.

Despite these teething problems, Harrison Adika, a magistrate from Kisumu in western Kenya, said the app might one day make his job easier.

"What happens is that the victim may speak on the first day because she's in pain or she needs to get the anger out. But after two days she's not willing to talk anymore. But if you have already captured this, it becomes very easy, you don't lose evidence," Adika told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I don't even need to get the victim to come and testify if she doesn't wish to testify. Once it is recorded, I'm able to use the same evidence at the trial."

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