Serving Up Justice in the World’s Rape Capital—via Smartphones

MediCapt is a new app that moves to digitize—and standardize—the process of a rape kit in the Congo.

A Congolese soldier is stripped of his rank and uniform after being court-martialed with 38 other soldiers on counts of rape and murder during a North Kivu military offensive. (Photo: Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

Mar 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo face especially high instances of sexual violence—a 2011 report found that an average of 48 women were raped every hour in the DRC in 2006 and 2007, and a U.N. official called it “the rape capital of the world” in 2010.

But when it comes to prosecuting sexual violence, one difficult task in particular has been the collection of sensitive data and evidence from victims. Documenting these cases in remote regions with limited resources is a challenge. Most social and health care workers jot notes on pieces of paper or in notebooks—neither secure nor reliable—and there is no formal process to collect and submit consistent information.

At a Yale lecture in December, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers iterated the need to reform the way rape data is gathered: “We can improve accountability for violence against women and girls through strengthening documentation of abuses and the capacity of justice officials to prosecute perpetrators.”

A doctor using the MediCapt app at a recent testing

session in eastern DRC (Photo: Courtesy MediCapt)

Now there’s at least one solution in the works. MediCapt, a new mobile-based app designed to store forensic medical evidence from a sexual assault, is set to be released in the DRC in 2016. Developed by Physicians for Human Rights, a New York–based nonprofit, the app offers doctors a digital medical form that standardizes the information collected.

Previously, field workers and doctors were merely asking for what they thought might be pertinent information. MediCapt provides a prescribed list of questions that ensures they are being thorough. Sample questions include: Was the victim pregnant? Has she tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease? Did the perpetrator have weapons? Could he be part of a militia group?

With a smartphone, medical teams can also snap images of the individual’s injuries for examination and for use as evidence. By having these responses digitized, MediCapt can then create a central database for all the information submitted, making it accessible to doctors, social workers, and forensics teams simultaneously.

“We developed the app using the principle of collaborative design, or codesign—that is, the idea came from the clinicians, [and] the parameters were defined by the clinicians,” said Widney Brown, director of programs at PHR.

The idea for the app was first submitted in 2013 to the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. Led by USAID and Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Humanity United, the competition was part of a new program on genocide prevention announced by President Obama. MediCapt won a $5,000 prize, along with a larger grant from the U.S. State Department for overall work in addressing sexual violence.

Last January, doctors in Bukavu, a city in eastern DRC bordering Rwanda, began experimenting with the app. Each doctor received an Android phone provided by PHR along with instructions and training sessions.

While the app can also run on tablets, cell phones are more practical in mobile clinics, Brown said. But no matter what device is used, the app can store information even if connectivity is lost, retrieving and updating the system accordingly when there’s a signal. Once the data is entered into the program, it’s also encrypted and hidden behind a password.

“Having the app is like traveling around with a lockbox in your hand,” Brown said.

Currently, PHR is working with a software developer who traveled to the DRC to see firsthand what environmental limitations should be factored into its design and function, including power outages and network failures. PHR will run another field test in the second half of this year and hopes to have the app deployed in the field by early next year.

Though the app is designed for assault and abuse cases, Brown said the team sees other possibilities for its use within the health care field.

“The more we work with MediCapt, the more its potential seems enormous,” she noted. “Not just for clinicians doing forensic assessments in difficult circumstances, but possibly for all clinicians doing this type of work.”