Innovative Technologies Combat Gender-Based Violence

(January 2014) Gender-based violence (GBV) is a difficult topic, encompassing a wide range of issues—from date rape to intimate partner violence to rape in conflict settings. And interventions that seek to prevent violence or help survivors similarly are unable to cater to all people experiencing abuse, as culture and context can shape both the forms of violence and the needs of victims.


Despite the variations in GBV, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers can learn from the challenges and successes of interventions around the world. To commemorate 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the Interagency Gender Working Group, USAID, Woodrow Wilson Center, CARE, and the Population Reference Bureau hosted a panel discussion on Dec. 9, 2013, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., that showcased four programs using innovative technologies to inform their work.


The interventions share several commonalities: Each program uses technology like video and the Internet to enhance their work to prevent violence or work with survivors and all keep the survivors at the center of their programs. Each panelist described working with survivors to create an effective intervention that catered to survivor needs, which vary greatly between programs—a college student in the United States needs different tools than a housewife in India, for example. Representatives from each program described the innovative intervention and outlined how using technology opens the door to both greater opportunities and challenges.


The View From the Ground


If women in abusive relationships seek help, they can be swamped with information, said panelist Nancy Glass of Johns Hopkins University. “[When] we have a woman in our emergency department, in our shelter, we think to ourselves ‘we may never see her again, so let’s give her everything we know about safety,’ ” she said. “Can you imagine how overwhelming that is? So we want to help women step through their priorities.” Priorities include safety, her children’s safety (if applicable), access to resources, privacy and confidentiality, and feelings for her partner.


Glass described the MyPlanApp as a safety decision aid for both survivors and their friends to assess danger in a relationship, consider priorities for safety, and personalize an action plan. The app walks a woman through her priorities, helps her gauge the level of danger in her relationship, and plan accordingly.


Glass also spoke about IRIS, the evaluation of the impact of MyPlanApp. The five-year study looked at 720 women from four states in the United States who self-identify as being in abusive relationships. Women were randomized to use either MyPlanApp or a less-specialized safety decision planning website. MyPlanApp offers something different than the blanket advice that resources for survivors usually provide. Because the plans are tailored to each woman, the research showed that women have less uncertainty and more clarity about their safety decisions.


Another app, Tech 4 Good’s Circle of 6, was also designed for women in the United States, but targets an entirely different demographic. “We know that the problem [of gender-based violence] is severe” for college students, Tech 4 Good’s Nancy Schwartzman said. She pointed out that one in four college-age women in the United States will be sexually assaulted. And over 60 percent use smartphones. “We wanted to make something that was simple, that emphasized relationships and community building, which is so important for college students,” she said.


The Circle of 6 app was developed to appeal to college students both in visual appearance and ease of use. Users add up to six individuals to their circle and can ask all six for help getting home, a phone call to serve as a distraction in a tenuous situation, or relationship advice with just a few touches to their screen.


While the app was designed for users in the United States, Schwartzman noted that there has been an increase in use internationally, especially in India. As a result, Circle of 6 is launching in Hindi and has been endorsed by Bollywood star John Abraham. Circle of 6 continues to evolve in response to the needs of its increasingly diverse users.


While many women in the United States can use mobile apps and websites directly, panelist Mohini Bhavsar of Dimagi/India noted that some Indian women face greater barriers to access. Instead of creating a product targeting survivors, Dimagi designed an app that helps health care providers better screen for intimate-partner violence.


“Primary health centers offers a safe and timely entry point for gender-based screening and that’s because women come to health centers for prenatal care, antenatal care, and…to make sure their children receive the proper immunizations that they need,” Bhavsar said. Instead of seeing lack of mobile access for these women as an insurmountable barrier, Dimagi found a way to serve isolated women.


Ethical Considerations


Of course, introducing innovative approaches to help combat GBV can lead to some unforeseen consequences. Bukeni Waruzi from WITNESS spoke about the importance of reducing the possibility of retraumatization while interviewing survivors for a video in an effort to combat future GBV. Informed consent is critical and helps survivors better understand the focus of the interview. He said that interviewers need to be mindful and responsive when speaking with survivors. “During the interview one of the challenges that we have noticed through the years of WITNESS on the issue of sexual violence is that sometimes there is…a disconnect between the story the woman is telling and the person who is telling the story,” he noted. “One is just interested in collecting the story, and that is not compassionate.”


Protecting privacy is paramount, since exposing a survivor’s identity can expose them to more violence. Waruzi described some of WITNESS’s privacy prevention tactics, including an app called ObscureCam that can be used to blur the faces of photographed individuals. Other interventions have also gone to great lengths to protect the identities of survivors. While health care providers using Dimagi’s app are prompted to record data about patients, they are required to ask for consent before doing so. When a woman’s information is recorded, she is only identified by a case number and the information is stored in a mobile phone used only by one staff member for clinic work, not for personal use.


Christopher Burns of USAID commented on the proliferation of new technologies to combat GBV. “It may be ambitious, but I would posit that we’ve arrived at a moment in time when we finally have a set of tools that can help virtually eliminate gender-based violence,” he said.