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Tracking Rape In Syria Through Social Media

Feb 5, 2013
Originally published on February 5, 2013 8:17 pm

Rape has long been a weapon of war, but documenting sexual violence usually happens after a conflict is over. Researchers are taking a new path with the Syrian conflict: tracking the incidents of rape as they occur.

The Women Under Siege project is live-tracking how sexualized violence is being used in Syria. What's new is the data: information collected through crowdsourcing — reports on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from inside the country — which is then analyzed by public health researchers at Columbia University.

The project's crowdmap keeps an up-to-date tally in visual form: Incidents of sexual violence are represented by dots on a map — the larger the dot, the more reports of rape.

Graduate student Jackie Blachman-Forshay works with a team of Arabic translators to transcribe the accounts. One account posted online is from a rape victim who tells of coming home and being attacked by five Syrian soldiers while her son was forced to watch.

In another example, a former soldier says he raped women in custody. He says he received orders from an army general to rape women, which he did, along with three other men, at a university in the northern city of Aleppo.

Every report is coded by perpetrator and date, and mapped by location.

"At this point I've watched anything that has to do with rape in Syria," Blachman-Forshay says. "If it's on YouTube, I've seen [it]."

Challenging Traditional Methods

It's part of the detailed research for the Women Under Siege project, which is led by director Lauren Wolfe and is part of the New York-based Women's Media Center.

Karestan Koenen, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia, describes the work of "engaging with this incredibly traumatic material" as "heartbreaking."

Koenen joined the project to add academic standards. Even so, she is challenging traditional public health research methods, "pushing boundaries" by using crowdsourcing to document a crisis happening now, rather than waiting to interview the victims.

"Because waiting until after a conflict is over to collect this data has all kinds of problems, including the fact that we know many of the victims will be dead and never have the opportunity to speak," she says.

Koenen says she believes it's the first conflict in which this data has been collected in real time.

John Page, a self-described number cruncher, is another team member who plays an important role. Page works for a high-tech company in Virginia, but volunteers his expertise for Women Under Siege.

On a recent day, he discusses his most recent findings with Koenen and Blachman-Forshay, looking at the potential targeting of women and how it might vary by area and by cause.

Page also analyzes data for a website called Syria Tracker, a crowdmap that documents deaths in the country. He has noted places where women have accounted for many of the deaths, and that's a signal to check the database to see if there's a correlation.

Koenen has already drawn some conclusions: Sexual violence is widespread in Syria, and the victims are not only women.

"We also see a significant proportion of male reports of sexualized violence," she says. "And we also see that a higher proportion involve multiple attackers, suggesting that the sexualized violence is going along with other atrocities in Syria."

Questions About Crowdsourcing

In the refugee camps across Syria's borders, the harrowing accounts of women and girls echo those findings. The majority cite sexual violence as the reason for fleeing the country.

But even so, a precise accounting is still not possible. The social stigma for acknowledging rape is too great in the conservative Arab culture.

Lucas Dixon, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh who studies social media, says using crowdsourced data is still controversial, raising questions such as how to verify sources and how to ensure a representative sample.

But still, there is value in the data.

"This is what is really new in terms of the story that can be told by crowdsourcing: It can give you the overview picture, it can connect the dots, it can then inform you in ways that weren't possible before," Dixon says.

Projects like Women Under Siege are breaking new ground, he says, changing what we can know and how quickly we can know it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Rape has long been a weapon of war, but sexual violence is rarely documented until after the conflict is over. Well now, there's a new path.

LAUREN WOLFE: I'm Lauren Wolfe, and I'm the director of the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege Project. And we are live-tracking how sexualized violence is being used in Syria.

CORNISH: Live tracking. That means the Women Under Siege website keeps an up-to-date tally. The incidents of sexual violence are represented by dots on a map. The larger the dot, the more reports of rape. What's truly new here is the data - information collected through crowd sourcing, reports on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from inside the country.

As NPR's Deborah Amos reports from New York, that data is then analyzed by public health researchers at Columbia University.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is the testimony of a rape victim in Syria she posted online.

And what is her story?

JACKIE BLACHMAN-FORSHAY: She came home and was attacked by five Syrian soldiers while her son was forced to watch.

AMOS: Jackie Blachman-Forshay, a graduate student, transcribes these accounts with a team of Arabic translators.

BLACHMAN-FORSHAY: This, for example, is a soldier - a former soldier saying that he raped women in custody.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLACHMAN-FORSHAY: He received orders from the army general to rape women, and he did so along with three other men, and this happened at a university in Aleppo.

AMOS: It's all part of the detailed research for the Women Under Siege Project.

BLACHMAN-FORSHAY: At this point, I've watched anything that has to do with rape in Syria that's on YouTube, I've seen.

AMOS: Every report is coded by perpetrator, by date and mapped by location.

KARESTAN KOENEN: Our team - Jackie and the translators, who remain anonymous - they're really engaged in the heartbreaking work of engaging with this incredibly traumatic material.

AMOS: That's Karestan Koenen, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia. She joined the project to add rigorous academic standards. But even so, she's challenging traditional public health research methods.

KOENEN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

KOENEN: Yes. So we are pushing boundaries.

AMOS: Pushing boundaries because her team uses crowd sourcing to document a crisis happening now rather than waiting to interview the victims.

KOENEN: Because waiting until after a conflict is over to collect this data has all kinds of problems, including the fact that we know many of the victims will be dead and never have the opportunity to speak.

AMOS: And so this is the first conflict that this data has been collected in real time?

KOENEN: To my knowledge, yes.

AMOS: There's another member of the team who plays an important role.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

AMOS: John Page, a self-described numbers cruncher, works for a high-tech company in Virginia. He volunteers his expertise for Women Under Siege.

KOENEN: Hey, John. It's Karestan. Jackie is here too.

AMOS: They talk over Page's most recent findings.

JOHN PAGE: We've been trying to slice this a few ways, just in terms of potential targeting of women and how it might vary by area and by cause.

AMOS: Page also analyzes data for a website called Syria Tracker that documents deaths in Syria.

PAGE: One of the neighborhoods had a death rate for women of 38 percent.

KOENEN: Wow. OK.

AMOS: It's a signal to check the database to see if there's a correlation. Koenen has already drawn some conclusions, that sexual violence is widespread in Syria, and the victims are not only women.

KOENEN: We also see a significant proportion of male reports of sexualized violence. And we also see that a higher proportion are involved multiple attackers, suggesting that the sexualized violence is going along with other atrocities in Syria.

AMOS: In the refugee camps across Syria's borders, the harrowing accounts of women and girls echo these findings. The majority cite sexual violence as the reason for fleeing the country. But even so, an accurate accounting is still not possible. The social stigma for acknowledging rape is still too great in this conservative culture.

LUCAS DIXON: I'm Lucas Dixon, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

AMOS: Dixon, who studies social media, says getting data through crowd sourcing is still controversial - how to verify sources, how to ensure a representative sample? But still, there's value in the data.

DIXON: This is what's really new in terms of the story that can be told by crowd sourcing. It can give you the overview picture; it can connect the dots. It can then inform you in ways that weren't possible before.

AMOS: Projects like Women Under Siege are breaking new ground, he says, challenging what we can know and how quickly we can know it. Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.