By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. women's group is using new crowd-sourcing techniques to track rape and other sexual violence across Syria in one of the first efforts to monitor assaults against women during military conflict in real-time.
The effort by the Women's Media Center aims to shed light on such assaults and provide possible evidence to prosecute future human rights violations and war crimes. The group launched its website on Wednesday and said it was working with multiple Syrian activists whom it did not identify.
So far, the group has posted more than 20 reports, including deaths, from May 6, 2011, to March 17 and is verifying others.
Among incidents reported are undated allegations, labeled unverified, from a Palestinian news outlet that Syrian army forces raped 36 women near the villages of Kurin and Sahl Al-Rawj and from a YouTube video in which a man identified as a Syrian military volunteer says government forces kidnapped and raped 25 girls in Homs.
Crowd-sourcing allows the general public to provide information and report events very quickly. Reports can be made on the website, WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com, via e-mail or on Twitter using the hashtag #RapeinSyria.
Syria faces intense international criticism over its government's violent crackdown on a popular uprising against the government that began a year ago. More than 9,000 people have been killed, and violence continues despite peace efforts.
Violence against women has been particularly underreported, something the online project aims to change, said Lauren Wolfe, director of the advocacy group's Women Under Siege project that launched the website.
"The stories are more atrocious than I could have imagined. We have evidence that there's possible sexual enslavement going on, mutilation -- really horrific atrocities," Wolfe said.
"No one has ever measured sexual violence in conflict during the conflict. It's always after the fact," she added.
The Arabic-English website uses technology from Ushahidi, a global nonprofit technology company, and allows anonymous reports.
So far, reports to the site have come mostly through media outlets. The center said it cannot independently verify all of those stories because the Syrian government has widely blocked access to the country.
Other reports from individuals are currently being assessed, the center's Wolfe said.
BUILDING A PICTURE
"That can start to give a picture of the scale and scope of the violence and the human rights violations," said Physicians for Human Rights Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin, who is collaborating with the center on the project and has worked on sexual violence issues in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Bosnia.
Cristina Finch at the international human rights group Amnesty International's U.S. unit said there are reports of men being raped in Syria as well. Her group tracks torture, harassment and deaths at www.eyesonsyria.org.
"Any tool that we can use to highlight what's happening on the ground and document human rights abuses, atrocities and incidences of sexual violence is useful for accountability," she said.
Ushahidi, which specializes in developing free and open source computer software to collect information, began in 2008 as a website mapping reported violence in Kenya amid a post-election crisis. Its name means "testimony" in Swahili.
The Women's Media Center was founded in 2005 by women activists Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan and monitors women's issues in media.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)