Putting numbers on sexual violence in conflict: does technology have a role to play?

by Barbora Holicka

Sexual violence against women in conflict regions seems intrinsic to war and is as old as war itself. From biblical times, historians have documented gender-based violence targeting women which range from deliberate sexual assaults on the women of conquered nations to the kidnapping of women for exploitation, forced labour and production of offspring. From the Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS to the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, from the 1,152 rapes daily occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone to the sexual abuse of women in IDP camps across the world, it appears this problem is very much alive and growing. It is startling that despite its persistence, the hard statistics quantifying and analysing the incidents are still scarce. There is however a growing optimism that the recent technological innovations and changes in telecommunications might be able to help change this by offering effective tools for communities in resource-poor and hostile environments to tackle this problem.

War intensifies the brutality, repetitiveness, public spectacle and likelihood of rape.
— Rhonda Copelon, Toward Accountability for Violence Against Women in War

Imprecise reporting

War time rape was condemned by the international humanitarian law early in the 20th century but it was not until 2010 that UN passed the long overdue Resolution 1960, calling for enhanced data collection and incident analysis of sexual violence in conflict. Despite this acknowledgement our quantitative understanding of violence against women not only remains poor but is also being further hindered by imprecise reporting, misinterpretations and flawed estimates.  This can be sometimes ascribed to different political agendas but very often is simply caused by a breakdown of standard reporting and data collection systems which can complicate or even prevent efforts for comprehensive analysis. Inaccurate statistics and lack of historical, medical and forensic data means inadequate measures to address the problem and reasonably allocate the necessary resources and services available to the survivors.


Even in the best of circumstances it is difficult to put numbers on sexual violence while hostile settings present unique social, political and medical challenges. Feelings of humiliation and shame, isolation, poor communications and infrastructure, victim-blaming socio-cultural attitudes or fear of revenge are generally recognized as the most common causes of underreporting. It is estimated that only about 6-7% of women who suffered sexual violence filed a report to the authorities in East Timor and Rwanda during the conflict, illustrating that hostile conditions only exacerbate the fear of being socially stigmatized. Even when the survivors are ready and willing to cooperate researchers have a number of security, logistic and ethical concerns to deal with. In conflict zones many survivors belong among the internally displaced people and reside in overcrowded camps. Others live in remote areas in militia-controlled regions with lack of infrastructure. In most cases it is extremely difficult to deliver medical care and conduct assessments covertly without giving away victim’s identity. This can significantly delay or all together prevent the much needed rapid response which would benefit the survivor.

Reports are not neutral documents, they constitute demands for action
— E. Heineman, Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones

Digital Humanitarianism

In recent years there has been much optimism that technological innovation might be able to help us change this. It is indeed that many remote regions across the world benefit from mobile phone coverage and the associated ease of communication for the first time in history.  New technologies such as smart phone applications or crowdsourcing platforms have in recent years bolstered traditional protection efforts in conflict or disaster settings, helping to address a whole range of different issues.

However, technology on its own is not a panacea for sexual violence. The practical challenges faced by the women in conflict zones mean that many of them might be excluded from using technology all together. While the reported saturation rates in many African countries are over 100%, it is often only the husband who has exclusive privileges to use the family phone while many people still cannot afford to buy airtime at all. Apart from accessibility there is a number of ethical and transparency issues that have to be factored in including appropriate procedures for privacy, data protection and risk assessment applicable to the crowdsourcing systems as well as the staff of any participating organisation. Finally, for any such effort to be successfully integrated within the unique local context and circumstances it is absolutely crucial that all solutions are developed and implemented in close partnership with the communities they aim to serve.

Despite these challenges there have been more than few successful cases in which use of technology brought real benefits to the people in disaster or conflict settings. Interestingly, number of them was developed 'on the go' as the emergency unfolded thus addressing real challenges faced by people in real time. Technology forever changed the way people share their experiences including the most horrific ones. While the use of it in hostile conditions surely raises many questions, its practically limitless scope for creativity also gives us opportunities to attempt to answer these questions innovatively and change the ways we understand and address emergencies. In case of violence targeted at women in conflict it is possible that same technologies could help us develop robust systems for quick data collection as well as rapid and carefully targeted response in acute care of survivors. No doubt such systems are urgently needed- in times when one in three women worldwide will experience sexual violence in her lifetime.

Barbora Holicka is based in London where she works as a freelance researcher and writer with a particular interest in nutrition, food security and human rights. She holds a BA in Development Studies & International Relations and had previously worked on public health related projects for local NGOs in the slums of Colombo, Sri Lanka and Nairobi, Kenya.


Peterman A. et al (2011), Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 101(6), pp. 1060-1067

Hynes M. et al (2004), A Determination of the Prevalence of Gender-based Violence among Conflict-affected Populations in East Timor, Disasters, Vol. 28(3), pp.294-321

Ward J. (2005), Violence against women: a statistical overview, challenges and gaps in data collection and methodology and approaches for overcoming them, Expert Group Meeting UN & WHO

IFRC (2010), TERA and Beneficiary Communication, Available here, Accessed: May 2015


Where to go next:

TEDTalk on Digital Humanitarianism