What would it mean to document instances of sexual violence in real time, as these assaults are unfolding? And what would it mean to do this for an area of the world that is currently restricted to outsiders, including journalists and human rights workers?
That’s exactly what the organizers of Women Under Siege Syria are asking, and are attempting to answer with their groundbreaking crowd-mapping initiative at WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com. They’re collecting the personal experiences and secondhand reports of the sexualized violence taking place in Syria as the year-long protests for democratic reform rage on. And they’re using the software Ushahidi — named after the Swahili word for “testimony” — to put these reports on a map, so that the crisis can become visual and real for audiences all over the world.
The Women Under Siege Syria initiative launched yesterday as a component of the New York-based project Women Under Siege, which documents and educates audiences about how rape and other forms of sexualized violence have been used as strategic tools in genocide, war and other conflicts throughout the 20th century, and how it’s continuing into the 21st century. Directed by Lauren Wolfe, who is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists — where she also focused on sexualized violence — its mission is multifaceted. Women Under Siege aims to not only educate the global community, but to also push for action plans to create legal, diplomatic and public interventions, so that international organizations can use this understanding to curb gender-based threats.
Since it first started in February of this year, Women Under Siege has traced the intersection of sexualized violence and conflict in numerous areas, including Bangladesh, the Darfur-Sudan region and Libya. And now, it’s doing it in Syria — the first time it’s tracking the cases in real time.
As Wolfe told Mashable in an interview, however, it’s more “real-time with approval.” She and the other workers behind the project are collaborating with doctors and other public health officials in the U.S., as well as aid and refugee workers abroad, to vet each case as it comes in. Not only are they scanning the Internet for reports from various media outlets or other sites on the internet, but they’re also calling for individuals to send in cases through a web form, SMS, email, and even Twitter, using the hashtag #RapeInSyria.
If this sounds incredibly dangerous, that’s because it is. And the organizers of Women Under Siege Syria aren’t exactly asking the victims to send in reports, nor are they asking for reports from anyone actually inside the country.
“I’m sort of actively discouraging anyone in Syria from actually going on our site,” Wolfe said. “It’s so unsafe … I was warned by a tech security expert that I would be working from the most-advanced to the least-advanced [people] in terms of technology.”
So instead of relying soley on reports coming from within Syria — where the potential for government or other hacker infiltration is certainly a concern, thereby posing even more risks for the victims — Wolfe and her colleagues are working with refugee communities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as journalists and aid groups within these areas. These workers abroad are assisting Women Under Siege Syria by feeding them reports, which Wolfe and her colleagues are investigating and categorizing by type of sexual assault, location and how the reports are submitted. Syrian activists and a few others inside the country are also assisting with the project, but they must remain anonymous for safety reasons.
“We are working at so many levels to ensure that nobody is in danger, but it is tricky,” Wolfe said.
Despite the widespread strategizing to collect these instances of sexualized violence as safely as possible, all the reports so far — there are currently 21 of them at the time of writing — remain unverified. And according to Wolfe, the challenge of verifying these reports goes even beyond the fact that these cases are in Syria.
“Confirming rape is so problematic in the eyes of the world,” she said. “For a woman to go against her community, which is telling her that it’s shameful, to seek out medical or legal help … it’s almost impossible.”
In the Middle East, in particular, where the shame of rape is cast upon the woman’s family as well as the woman, it becomes even more difficult to truly assess the number of cases. Many cases remain unreported or hidden for fear of that shame.
That’s why, with the data visualization of the Women Under Siege Syria project, the idea is to get more of an understanding of the numbers first — rather than focusing on the actual numbers themselves — and then use that understanding to potentially see which locations need certain kinds of aid supplies, or to track certain regions where sexualized violence seems to be occurring more often.
“To me, what we’re doing right now, is giving us the possibility of getting a number,” Wolfe said.
Though the project is an ongoing one and will definitely take some time, Wolfe is hopeful that meshing the statistics with the personal reports will create a new kind of understanding of sexual violence, even if it is simply seeing on a map how geographically widespread the violence is.
“The emphasis is not so much the number, but that this is a crisis,” Wolfe said. “Entire communities are torn apart by sexual violence and conflict … My hope is to get the international community to realize that [the crisis in Syria] is also a public health crisis.”
What do you think of Women Under Siege Syria? Do you think data visualization is a good tool for tracking rape and other forms of sexualized violence?
Article source: http://mashable.com/2012/03/30/sexual-violence-syria/