Thinking about using technology to address gender-based violence? Five recommendations from experts

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Journalists, activists and researchers have been raising the alarm about the dual pandemic of increasing levels of gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Calls to helplines have increased, women and girls are disappeared and sexual harassment and violence persists both in public spaces and online. At the same time, women and girls are experiencing reduced mobility and limited contacts with social networks. Service providers also report disruptions to psychosocial support, legal aid centers are closed, and health-care providers and police have shifted to focus on pandemic response. Like all other facets of life, technology has become a valuable tool to help address GBV.

Experts have long been exploring ways of using technology to address intimate partner violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Yet, adapting these approaches to low-and middle-income settings requires careful consideration. New innovations are helping to better support survivors at home and are continuing to address this form of violence in public spaces. 

One type of innovation is about using the internet to better connect survivors to pro-bono services. Mapa do Acolhimento, a solidarity network in Brazil, helps link GBV survivors with pro bono lawyers and mental health professionals. Mapa trains volunteers online and then matches them to survivors based on proximity, and has also created a guide and a map of GBV-related public services. 

Other interventions are app-based with the goal of providing support to those who experience violence. In Armenia, Safe YOU mobile app is enabling users to seek help in emergency situations by sending free alert messages to pre-set personal contacts (including family members, government authorities, women’s support groups, and the police) using geolocation.

Similarly, the World Bank’s Peru team is supporting the design of a mobile app that connects GBV survivors with their trusted circle and provides them with relevant resources including preventive information and key support services, such as specialized helplines and police stations, amongst other resources.  The app, which has been developed based on the Circle of 6 prototype, is being designed in a participatory way with Peruvian women for its adaptation to the national context.

Mapa do Acolhimento and Safe YOU are awardees to the Development Marketplace: innovations to address GBV, a partnership initiative with the Sexual Violence Research Initiative to advance evidence-based, innovative research on preventing and responding to gender-based violence in low and middle-income settings.

In Kolkata, a World Bank team has been working with the West Bengal Transport Department to address sexual harassment in public transportation. Pathdisha, which means pathfinder, is a safety app with pre-populated messages based on the type of incident, including sexual harassment and assault. The user can choose to alert the police, family, or various social services for support. The relevant service can be activated through a phone or a wearable device, which is enabled by Bluetooth paired with the phone. The team is now adapting the solution to Dar-Es-Salaam, in partnership with local stakeholders.

So if you’re thinking about using technology to address gender-based violence, this is what the current practitioners recommend: 

  1. Center the safety and privacy of survivors

The safety and privacy of survivors must be at the forefront of any solution. Any data must be anonymized, ensuring that no one has access to sensitive or identifiable data. Furthermore, careful consideration is needed about the storage, ownership and management of data. Any tech solution should integrate a trigger to connect survivors with trained professionals to maximize their safety.   The best way to center women’s safety is to include them as co-creators of the solution.

  1. Align with the government’s priorities and use these dialogues as a way to raise awareness about gender-based violence

Start by finding alignment with the government’s priorities, including an understanding of both medium and long-term goals. After that, consider how technology-based solutions could help them to achieve these objectives. In Kolkata, the team leveraged the government’s interest in using data to improve mobility as a way to incorporate a focus on women’s safety.

  1. Think carefully about the role of each stakeholder  

Everyone has an important role to play as well as their comparative advantage. The private sector is an important partner in developing technology-based solutions. Governments can support with an enabling environment through appropriate regulation and financing that can help to build the capacity of public services, including police, health and legal services. The public sector can also work to safeguard the quality of care and response. There are other partners too: Non-governmental organizations can help create consensus, the media can raise awareness, academia can test and verify the effectiveness of interventions, and of course, GBV experts who understand the needs of and can advocate for survivors are critical.

  1. Develop modular approaches that can be adapted to various ecosystems

When designing solutions, consider open-source, modular approaches that can be customized for a particular context. This provides flexibility so that practitioners can adapt as needed. Mapping and assessing the capacity of local actors can help reveal which services might be appropriate and which ones need support in enhancing their ability to better respond to GBV. 

  1. Consider inclusive solutions that take into account digital divides  

Technology can deepen exclusion if access isn’t considered upfront. In many lower and medium-income countriesfewer women have access to smartphones and the Internet than men, as well as less disposable income to spend on data. Solutions that don’t require a lot of data or those that can be used without smartphones help make them more inclusive.

Though the effects, benefits, and safety of technology-based solutions need to be further assessed, some studies provide interesting insights. A systematic review of 171 apps designed to address violence against women finds that they are used primarily for one-time emergency solutions as opposed to preventative approaches. The authors conclude that technology interventions need to better address the range of factors (individual, relationship, community and societal) that contribute to violence against women. Furthermore, technology interventions should aim to better link with existing actors, like women’s groups and self-help groups, and complement more traditional approaches.

One thing is clear: at all times we must ensure that women are not inadvertently put at risk. 

Recording of the "Leveraging technology to help survivors of gender-based violence event", which took place during the recent Gender Learning Week at the World Bank.

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