Dakar — "Protecting victims of sexual violence has to come first"
Activists behind an app designed to assist doctors document evidence of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo aim to go beyond obtaining justice for rape victims and collect data which could help secure prosecutions for war crimes.
Developed by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), MediCapt allows clinicians to record medical examination results digitally and photograph victims' injuries, store them online and send them directly to law enforcement officials and lawyers.
In a vast nation plagued by militant violence and poor roads that restrict access to remote areas, PHR hopes the mobile app will lead to more convictions for sexual violence and help Congo to shake off its tag as "rape capital of the world."
By recording data about both victims and assailants, the app - which is currently in field testing - could also be used to detect mass violence and crimes against humanity and provide evidence for war crimes investigators, according to PHR.
"It has the power to be used as an early warning system or rapid response tool, as the data could show patterns of abuses and violence," said Karen Naimer, director of the U.S.-based PHR's programme on sexual violence in conflict zones.
MediCapt could help prosecutors map trends or patterns of locations attacked, victims targeted and languages spoken and the uniform worn by assailants, Naimer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The app may also be used to push for war crime prosecutions with evidence of crimes that are widespread or systematic," she said.
Ethnic violence in Congo, Africa's second-largest nation, has spread and worsened since December when President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his mandate.
Recent acts of violence between local militia and Congolese forces in central Congo, including the killing of civilians and foreign U.N. experts, could constitute war crimes, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor said in April.
Yet the priority for PHR with MediCapt - which will be rolled out for use by doctors in eastern Congo this summer - is to ensure that it gives victims of sexual violence the security and confidence to come forward and speak out, said Naimer.
Sexual violence is often seen as a by-product of years of fighting in Congo, where atrocities were blamed on soldiers and armed groups, but rape is also rife beyond the conflict zones.
"While the app has the potential to highlight mass violence and human rights violations, protecting victims of sexual violence has to come first," Naimer said.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst.