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World: Technologizing the Fight against Sexual Violence: A Critical Scoping

Source: Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Country: World
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
University of Oslo (UiO) and
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Introduction This note 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. The objective is to give practitioners and policymakers a better understanding of some of the potential challenges that might arise with respect to the use of technology for combating sexual violence. The note relies on a broad notion of ‘sexual violence’, including gender-based violence against women and men, as well as sexual violence and harassment by aid workers against beneficiaries and colleagues. The note urges cautious optimism with respect to the potential role and relevance of technology. 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 be come 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’. 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. Taking the rise of ‘digital bodies’ as a point of departure, this note maps out four thematic areas where sexual violence and technology interact, with the aim of facilitating ethical reflection and collective discussion on the issue.

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