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Fight Against Sexual Exploitation Explored at Science and Human Rights Conference

Medical workers can use the MediCapt smartphone app to capture forensic photographs, a process that is crucial in documenting sexual violence. | Physicians for Human Rights

Though global estimates of modern slavery produce numbers so large that they may seem immune to real-life solutions, they are crucial in informing policy and uncovering overlooked groups of victims, said statistician Davina Durgana at the recent AAAS Science, Technology and Human Rights Conference.

More than 40 million people were living in modern slavery in 2016, according to the Global Slavery Index, published by Durgana and her colleagues at the Walk Free Foundation. That number includes roughly 25 million in forced labor and 15 million in forced marriage.

Women in conflict zones face an increased risk of being subject to sexual violence that goes unprosecuted, despite not living in modern slavery. The MediCapt smartphone app, developed by the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights for use by clinicians in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, seeks to combat sexual assault by preserving forensic medical evidence that is critical for use in legal prosecutions of sexual predators.

Medical workers can use MediCapt to capture forensic photographs, a process that is crucial in documenting the physical injuries associated with sexual violence cases. It also provides sophisticated encryption for intake documentation, cloud data storage, and data mapping that can highlight patterns of violence, among other features.

On October 23, the opening evening of their annual, three-day conference, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition presented Physicians for Human Rights with its first Science and Human Rights Innovator recognition, an honor including $10,000 to support the ongoing development of MediCapt.

Durgana’s presentation on her work classifying and cataloging modern slavery at the Walk Free Foundation came on the final day of the meeting. To produce reliable estimates of something as covert as slavery, researchers use a variety of creative methods.

“The job here is effectively to find people in uncontrolled spaces,” said Durgana, who is also a AAAS If/Then Ambassador. “It’s very challenging, because, generally speaking, people want to keep their slaves hidden.”

Statistician Davina Durgana presented last month on her work producing global estimates of modern slavery. | Theresa Harris/

In certain cases, the Walk Free Foundation draws statistics from data collected across government agencies. Such an approach has worked in countries including the United Kingdom, Serbia and Australia.

In developing countries, where such data is often unavailable, the researchers conduct surveys of their own, adding modules onto the Gallup World Poll, an annual survey tracking issues such as food access, employment and leadership performance in counties home to 99% of the world’s adult population. Additionally, though it does not yet contribute to the Index, satellite imagery can reveal otherwise unreachable slaves, including migrant laborers from Southeast Asia trapped on deep-sea fishing vessels for years at a time.

Compiling data from around the world can provide insight into global trends, such as the frequent association between slavery and environmental degradation, from illegal logging in the Amazon to overfishing in the Pacific. It also can offer sometimes counterintuitive lessons about who is most susceptible to slavery.

“It’s not always the poorest of the poor who are at risk,” Durgana said. “In fact, it’s the people who are poor-adjacent — those who have a few resources, some education and legitimate belief that if they were to travel for school, they would actually be able to achieve the dream of a better life.”

Networks of Nigerian traffickers in the suburbs of Naples, in southern Italy, for example, lure women from Africa with the idea of improved quality of life in Europe, only to force them into prostitution upon arrival.

Despite the grim realities disclosed by global slavery estimates, they can inform policymakers and consumers. Modern slavery regulations in France, California and elsewhere mandate that large companies outline the actions they take to ensure that slavery is not part of their supply chains. California, for instance, requires companies with annual worldwide sales exceeding $100 million to report how they ensure their suppliers are not involved in modern slavery. The U.S. Department of Labor also publishes lists of goods known to be made with forced labor, as do apps like Sweat & Toil.

“We can be effectively complicit in this line of consumerism,” Durgana said. “The exciting piece is that we have agency.”

The idea of increasing agency also played a central role in the development of MediCapt, which began with the founding of Physicians for Human Rights’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones in 2011. MediCapt provides a platform for doctors, nurses, police officers, lawyers and judges to collect, preserve and analyze forensic evidence in regions where poor medical and legal infrastructure often leads to impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence.

Physicians for Human Rights received the Science and Human Rights Innovator recognition for the development of MediCapt. | Adrienne Ohanesian/Physicians for Human Rights

A pilot launched in late 2018 in Kenya proved successful, and clinicians there are now writing a paper on their experience using the app. Physicians for Human Rights will use the financial reward from its receipt of the Science and Human Rights Innovator recognition to improve the platform’s technology and expand its reach to new sites in Kenya and the Congo in 2020.

“There’s certainly more work to do, but if our end users’ excitement is any indication, we’re on the right track,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, professor of family medicine at Georgetown University and consultant for Physicians for Human Rights, in accepting the recognition. “And, of course, I can say with some confidence now that yes, even a human rights organization can and should use technology.”


[Associate image: Adrienne Ohanesian/Physicians for Human Rights]