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Lauren Wolfe crowdsources rape, sex assault data

By Maggie Freleng   |   March 19, 2013 at 5:35 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK {WOMENSENEWS}-- It will be the year to end rape.

That's what Lauren Wolfe wrote in a Jan. 3 op-ed piece for CNN amid international outrage at the fatal gang rape in December 2012 of a medical student in India.

After that story published, Wolfe promoted the hashtag #2013EndRape on Twitter to drive public dialogue about sexualized violence.

Then she tweeted: "What thinkers-writers do you want to hear answer the question: What would you do to end #rape in 2013? #2013EndRape."

"It just took off from there," said Wolfe, who has seen the hashtag used, and continue to be used, countless times.

In September 2011, at 36, Wolfe became director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center project founded a few years ago by Gloria Steinem to study how rape is used as a weapon of war, with the goal of developing prevention tools that can save and protect girls and women in the future. The project's website, created by Wolfe, celebrated its first anniversary in February.

Women Under Siege started with in-depth analysis of how rape is used as a tool of war in nine conflicts around the world. The project is constantly expanding, now encompassing 12 conflicts globally, including historical ones such as the Holocaust.

Thus far, the first and only live-tracking the project does is in Syria. The Syria project chronicles individual accounts of war-time rape and sexual assault through crowdsourcing, gathering information through broad-reaching social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

Through crowdsourcing, and in partnership with Columbia University epidemiologists, reports of sexualized violence are published alongside the date and account of the attack on an interactive map. 

"Pro-regime news source alleges Al-Qaeda in Iraq member raped women in Baba Amr," reads one report from Feb. 28 of this year.

"Man accused of attempting to rape Syrian refugee in Lebanon" reads another Feb. 28 report.

Information is also derived from reports published by the U.N. and groups such as Human Rights Watch.

Real-Time Reports

The principle of real-time data collection during the heat of the conflict is crucial. In the post-conflict period it can be too late to speak to victims who may not have survived.

The Women Under Siege project site also includes a section called Witness for rape survivors of war to share their testimonies.

The White House State Department, the United Kingdom's foreign office and the U.N. have all contacted the project hoping to get a better understanding of how they can help in Syria.

Wolfe said she walked inquirers from these offices and institutions through the data that Women Under Siege has collected and discussed the problems that survivors are having and where the attacks may be occurring.

Since taking this position, Wolfe said she has also been contacted by a couple of major news outlets asking how they can better cover sexualized violence.

"This is incredibly positive and new," she said. "Half the battle with human rights is getting it reported and known."

Wolfe has been energetically contributing to that stream of reporting for many years. As director of Women Under Siege and in her previous jobs, Wolfe has written a torrent of articles and blog posts on the subject of sexual violence for publications that include the Guardian, The Atlantic, CNN and Syria Deeply.

Wolfe was born in Manhattan, N.Y., and had an art background before becoming a "human rights journalist," as she calls it. She graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and has worked everywhere from Architecture Magazine, as her first journalism job, to interning at the Associated Press in Rome to working for Long Island Press, where she noticed herself gravitating towards stories on trauma.

Lara Logan's Influence

Her path to the helm of Women Under Siege began in 2011, with CBS correspondent Lara Logan's attack in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.

At the time Wolfe was working as the senior editor for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, for whom she wrote a story on Logan's attack.

After that, Wolfe said she began receiving e-mails from colleagues around the world. Wolfe said she spoke to about 50 journalists who told her a personal or colleague's story about assaults on the job. The problem was big and under reported.

Wolfe was ticking. What was not being talked about in the news media? How and why are topics of rape and assault on women being avoided?

Before long she found herself in a TV appearance on CNN International.

With no media training, and growing media interest, Wolfe attended a five-day media training program that the Women's Media Center provides, called "Progressive Women's Voices." Wolfe said mock interviews and exercises with professional journalists during the training teach participants to feel confident in the work they've already done.

After getting to know some of the women in the program, Wolfe was tapped to help launch Women Under Siege online.

A Tool of War

In September 2011, she became founding director of Women Under Siege, which pivots off U.N. resolutions that, in the aftermath of the early 90s wars in Rwanda and Bosnia, recognized that rape is not simply a byproduct of war, but a tool of war; a means of one armed group to defeat another.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the conflict in Bosnia in the early 1990s, according to the U.N.

"We are not doing a good job [at educating about sexual assault and rape] because we are not interested in looking at analyses of why," said Wolfe. "The main premise of the whole project is to figure out why sexualized violence happens."

Answers to that can be found in the Conflict section of the website, which offers panels of red-colored maps where sexual violence has been tracked.

Click on Libya, for instance, and read this: "In Libya, rape is seen as an assault on a family and a community's honor, not just a crime against an individual. Therefore, rape was used by Gaddafi's forces to punish those disloyal to the regime."

Click on Egypt and find paragraphs of detail under three headings: To humiliate, To instill fear and stop protests, To intimidate and silence the media.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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