This post asks some critical questions about how the struggle against sexual violence in conflict links up with a major trend in humanitarian aid: namely, the turn towards technology and innovation as a strategy to improve the humanitarian sector and to more effectively address humanitarian issues.
What are the potential challenges that might arise with respect to the use of technology for combating sexual violence?
While I urge cautious optimism with respect to the potential role and relevance of technology to deal with sexual violence as a major human rights issue, there are significant caveats. The use of technology should not be seen as an end in itself. Despite good intentions, technology does not always work as intended. Inadequate problem definitions mean that technological solutions may fail to respond to the real-life problems they have been deployed to deal with. One common reason for faulty problem definitions is that affected populations are often absent from innovation processes: they are not properly consulted or invited to participate in any meaningful way. The international community must be alert to serious ethical and legal issues that might arise from technological innovations within the aid sector: technology can produce new digital harms, whether through introducing risks, (in)visibilizing the suffering of certain groups, or generating undesirable consequences.
It has been noted that certain ‘buzzword’ issues in the aid sector – such as sexual violence in war, or innovation – go from being unrecognized, ignored or forgotten to become an industry that appropriates funding at the expense of attention and resources to other humanitarian needs and problems, including addressing root causes. For example, there has been concern that sexual violence ‘crowds out’ alternative framings with respect to women’s insecurity or that criminalization of sexual violence provides overly simplistic messages.
The technology optimism and sometimes utopianism permeating the aid sector is articulated in the routine proclamations of digital humanitarian goods as ‘game changers’ or ‘revolutions in humanitarian affairs’. The use of cell-phones, social media platforms, satellites, drones, 3D printers, digital cash and biometric technology has changed how things are done, the speed and cost of doing things, as well as where things can be done from and by whom. The advantage of these technologies is that they generate massive amounts of data in a field traditionally afflicted by a lack of timely and accurate information. However, this is also where challenges arise: Digitization – the collection, conversion, storage, and sharing of data, and the use of digital technologies to collect and manage information about beneficiaries – increasingly shapes understandings of needs and responses to human suffering, such as sexual violence.
Critics have noted that technology and innovation are presented as the solutions to complex structural problems – and the framing of humanitarian problems accordingly shifts to problematizations being amenable to technological innovation and intervention. At the same time, the optics of being seen to engage in humanitarian activities has acquired its own commercial logic by creating a marketable moral economy of good intentions, which means that for-profit motifs play an increasingly important role in the identification, visiblization and mitigation of human suffering.
Each of these developments warrants careful critical scrutiny – the merger of the two agendas even more so.
I suggest that in particular, the kind of gendered digital bodies that arises when the struggle against sexual violence is technologized needs attention: Discussions around gender and technology deployments in emergencies have often focused on the gendered (frequently used in this context as a synonym for ‘women’) nature of digital shadows and digital illiteracy. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on digital risk and digital harms. Importantly, the use of digital technologies creates corresponding ‘digital bodies’ – images, information, biometrics, and other data stored in digital space – that represent the physical bodies of populations affected by conflict and natural hazards, but over which these populations have little say or control. Understanding this double risk – for the physical gendered body as well as the digital gendered body, and the interplay between the two – is crucial for properly gauging the role and relevance of technology in grappling with sexual violence. The point is not that digital and physical bodies are ‘the same’, but that compromising or neglecting the security of digital bodies may be as consequential in compromising the security and well-being of physical bodies.
To that end, we must continuously reassess our critical questions and strategies. Here are some of the issues we should think about:
- How does historical and political context shape technology use, and how can the urgency of ending sexual violence legitimate intrusive technological interventions? What are the (acceptable) trade-offs?
- What does it mean that the struggle against sexual violence is being increasingly quantified and remotely controlled – and based on criminal law sanctions? Do these approaches alone and in combination address the power differences that make sexual violence possible?
- How do we produce knowledge about sexual violence? What is the relationship between gender and algorithmic justice? Can technology reshape the application of international legal protection as it applies to gender crimes – and rights?
- What happens when sexual violence is reframed from a structural injustice problem to an innovation challenge? What are the risks of technological experimentation?