ASMA, 14, was raped at gunpoint. Two soldiers attacked her as she looked for firewood in the forest. "When I want to cry, one put a gun in my mouth while the other raped me. When the first had finished the other took his turn. I thought they were going to kill me."
Asma is just one of the many hundreds of thousands who have been the victims of sexual violence during the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A 2011 study estimated that several dozen women were being raped in the DRC every hour. Soon, stories like Asma's could be documented using a smartphone app named MediCapt. Such information may one day help bring perpetrators to justice.
MediCapt was developed by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a non-profit organisation based in New York City. The group won an award in 2013 for its concept at the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, linked to a genocide prevention initiative from US president Barack Obama.
For each case, a doctor will use the app to fill out a digital medical form. One section asks for standard physiological data, such as what parts of the body show signs of the assault, as well as smartphone pictures of any injuries, and whether the victim was pregnant or tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection. Another section suggests questions that could link the incident to particular offenders or military movements. Was there more than one perpetrator? Did they carry weapons, or look like members of a militia? What language did they speak?
In January, seven doctors in Bukavu, a major city on the border with Rwanda, started training with an early version of MediCapt. Each received an Android phone and learned to use it with case studies similar to Asma's.
By encouraging medical officials to perform thorough examinations and record them via MediCapt in a central database, PHR hopes to help prosecute sexual violence cases across the DRC.
There is huge interest in holding the perpetrators accountable, but the practicalities make it difficult to prosecute. Many survivors are reluctant to come forward. When they do, the evidence on their side is often patchy, with medical investigations incomplete or poorly documented. Assuming the perpetrator can even be found, such cases often hinge entirely on personal testimony.
This topic was discussed in London last month at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Effective prosecutions are a key part of lowering the rate of sexual violence in places like the DRC, says Holly Dranginis at Enough Project, a non-profit group in Washington DC. "The biggest black hole right now is with accountability," she says. "One thing we need to do as an international community – and especially in the scientific and legal communities – is find a way of amassing alternative evidence."
The summit produced a protocol for investigating sexual violence, signed by 151 countries, that encouraged the use of technology. Satellite imagery, for example, was suggested as a way to track troop movements and identify destroyed villages or mass graves. Such intelligence could be matched with victims' claims in any future trial.
Other projects, such as Women Under Siege in Syria, are using reports of incidents of sexual violence to create crowdsourced maps of attacks that could be used as the basis for future prosecutions. Similar maps exist for India and Egypt.
The doctors in the DRC ended their MediCapt training last week. They will start using it for real later this year, once the app is updated to make the data more secure and shareable with law enforcement without violating people's privacy.
"We may come to a general picture of trends and violations happening across regions, and then identify through political and militia movements who may be responsible for some of these cases," says Karen Naimer, who directs PHR's programme on sexual violence. "That's where this technology can provide an impact down the road."