Satellite Imagery and Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
Updated: Aug 6
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Image: NASA: Black Marble
Images from outer space, taken at night, showed how the Tigray conflict left a whole segment of its population in the throes of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. The satellite imagery shows how whole cities, including Tigray's capital, Mekelle, faded into black over a period of 20 months, with the shutdown of electricity supplies. Similar satellite image grabs have revealed the impacts of the conflict across Ukraine. While it is not news that armed conflict produces these impacts, there is some value in deploying these technologies as early warning mechanisms to prevent conflict-related sexual violence.
Nighttime sensing capabilities through the NOAA-NASA satellites operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Universities Space Research Association have identified changes in light usage around conflict zones such as Tigray and Ukraine. The satellite images capture the spread of lights, and have shown the progressive reduction of lights over the duration of these conflicts. The sensing capability, specifically the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the Suomi-NPP satellite, evaluates nighttime light emissions and reflections through a day-night band, and helps understand the intensity of lights on Earth’s surface and how it changes.
Data from sites of violent conflict are difficult to access, given both the prevalence of violence as well as the breakdown of the security sector and other administrative infrastructure. The absence of relevant datapoints also make it difficult to pin down exactly who is vulnerable to the armed conflict and at what point in time. NASA's Black Marble project - which is already doing tremendous work in enhancing research on light pollution, illegal fishing, and mapping the impacts of disaster and enabling recovery, could also be a valuable support in preventing and addressing conflict-related sexual violence.
Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
Given that conflict-related sexual violence can be both a deliberately planned and implemented war strategy and opportunistic, it is hard to pre-empt vulnerability in a manner that can inform prevention strategies. In light of this, satellite imagery can be particularly useful. For one thing, it indicates how and where the impacts of an unfolding armed conflict are distributed, and in collation with the demographics in the region, there can be some clarity in identifying those that are vulnerable. This can, accordingly, enable the deployment of appropriate strategies to prevent and address conflict-related sexual violence – such as evacuation of the vulnerable, the use of near-field communication to support survivors in reporting incidents and accessing help immediately, and the deployment of relief and rescue operations.
Black Marble has already supported initiatives such as the the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, where it has supported the assessment of “where displaced persons are most likely to have fled from, and to track their return home.” International agencies like the UNITAR-UNOSAT have also used night lights imagery to track conflicts. They have proven particularly effective in showcasing areas that most need aid and support, which has successfully informed and supported peacekeeping and relief work.
The media grab below is from the BBC, and showcases how Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray, virtually disappeared over 20 months of the armed conflict, from satellite imagery.
During this window of time, the total number of rapes recorded for the Tigray War at five medical facilities including in Mekelle ranged from 512 to 516. However, reports suggested that the actual number could be much higher because medical facilities were not functioning to full capacity, and reportage was challenging because of the stigma associated with it. A doctor at Mekelle reported that each survivor reported that at least 20 other women had been raped along with her – and that these women could not report the incident to any hospital.
Satellite imagery, could, in this context, have gone a long way in enabling access to support and preventing sexual violence at a large scale – especially seeing as so many instances were part of a deliberate campaign to deploy such violence. Satellite imagery can show us areas that may be sites of mass violence, and when cross verified with demographic data, may also show us where the most vulnerable sections of the population maybe most targeted, including by conflict-related sexual violence, both strategic and opportunistic. Reports from Tigray have shown a high prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence. There may just be some value in relying on satellite imagery as an early warning mechanism for conflict-related sexual violence.
The WPS Agenda does identify prevention as one of its pillars, but this area also happens to be one of the least addressed segments within the agenda. It is time to shift this.
References  BBC News (2022). Ethiopia war: Tigray capital Mekelle disappears from Nasa satellite photos https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-63316517  Earth Observatory (2022). Tracking Night Lights in Ukraine. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/150002/tracking-night-lights-in-ukraine  STAR Calibration Center (n.d.). Suomi NPP Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) https://ncc.nesdis.noaa.gov/VIIRS/  Earth Observatory (2022). Tracking Night Lights in Ukraine. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/150002/tracking-night-lights-in-ukraine  Earth Observatory (n.d.). Night Lights. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/NightLights  NASA, Black Marble, https://blackmarble.gsfc.nasa.gov/  Earth Observatory (2022). Tracking Night Lights in Ukraine. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/150002/tracking-night-lights-in-ukraine  Earth Observatory (2022). Tracking Night Lights in Ukraine. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/150002/tracking-night-lights-in-ukraine  Irish Times (2021). Men forced to rape family members in Ethiopia's Tigray region, says UN. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/africa/men-forced-to-rape-family-members-in-ethiopia-s-tigray-region-says-un-1.4520903  Lucy Kassa and Anna Pujol-Mazzini (2021). "'We're here to make you HIV positive': Hundreds of women rush to Tigray hospitals as soldiers use rape as weapon of war". The Daily Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/women-and-girls/make-hiv-positive-hundreds-women-rush-tigray-hospitals-soldiers  Lucy Kassa and Anna Pujol-Mazzini (2021). "'We're here to make you HIV positive': Hundreds of women rush to Tigray hospitals as soldiers use rape as weapon of war". The Daily Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/women-and-girls/make-hiv-positive-hundreds-women-rush-tigray-hospitals-soldiers