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INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls? There’s An App for That

New Media can be Harnessed to Help Prevent Violence Against Women

Today is International Women’s Day, which falls during the 57th annual week-long session of the Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, that is currently taking place at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

There could not be a more pressing theme than the one chosen for this year’s meeting: the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Global estimates reveal that 1 billion women worldwide have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence. The problem has reached crisis proportions that we cannot afford to ignore.

Over the past few months alone, we have seen a number of tragic and highly publicized stories of gender-based violence across the globe. In October Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who insisted that she and her female peers have a right to an education, was gunned down and nearly killed by the Taliban for her activism. In December an NFL player for the Kansas City Chiefs shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before killing himself. In January protests erupted after the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in India, which ultimately led to her death. Last month in Papua New Guinea, a young woman was burned alive by a mob after she was accused of being a witch. On Valentine’s Day South African model Reeva Steenkamp was fatally shot by her boyfriend and Olympian, Oscar Pistorius. And just last week a 15-year-old girl in the Maldives was sentenced to 100 lashes for having premarital sex.

These highly publicized acts of violence are only the tip of the iceberg: Every day in the United States, including today on International Women’s Day, more than three women will be murdered by their intimate partners. In Central America half of all women are at risk of domestic violence during their lifetime. Eastern Congo has been named the “rape capital of the world,” as 48 women are raped every hour.

This sea of statistics exposes the sheer depth and pervasiveness of gender-based violence and demonstrates the urgency of the crisis we face. But they may also be so daunting as to give the impression that the violence women experience every day is inevitable. We know that it is not inevitable and we can take steps to prevent it.

While there is no silver bullet that can create the deep-seated cultural shift in gender attitudes around the world that will be required to eliminate violence against women and girls, new technologies are bringing renewed hope to an old struggle. A major theme in the field of violence prevention in recent years has been to identify the ways that technology can be leveraged to empower individuals and communities to work toward preventing violence and to more effectively disrupt existing violence by connecting victims with needed services in their communities.

Recent technological advances in gender-based violence prevention

Governments, the private sector, and health and technology organizations around the world have joined together to bring the power of new media to bear on violence prevention and other public-health initiatives. Mobile phones have been used for everything from suicide prevention, to preventing elder abuse, to helping organize antibullying campaigns.

Here are a few examples of remarkable efforts that have focused specifically around preventing gender-based violence:

  • Last year the World Health Organization hosted a “Hackathon Against Domestic Violence,” where more than 350 web developers collaborated with each other to figure out innovative ways to raise awareness about domestic violence through developing new apps. The winning team built an anonymous cyberspace forum for victims to learn from and share their experiences without having to give up their privacy. Other winning prototypes included a web and SMS-based app to alert trusted friends and family in the case of teenage girls being taken abroad and an SMS and web-integrated hotline that provides information on gender-related violence and how to report an incident.
  • In 2011 the White House launched “Apps Against Abuse,” an initiative that challenged developers to come up with ideas for ways mobile phones could be leveraged to help young women and men take a proactive role in preventing dating violence and sexual assault. The winner of the competition was an iPhone app called “Circle of 6,” which makes it easy for a person to quickly reach their circle of supporters and let them know where they are and what they need. The app uses text messaging to contact a young woman’s chosen network, uses GPS to locate her if she needs help, and connects her to reputable domestic violence organizations if needed.
  • The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council convened a conference in 2011 of international experts on Communications and Technology for Violence Prevention and produced a book surveying the landscape of new media for violence prevention. The book highlights goals for developing and evaluating new media tools to identify the safest and most effective ways to implement technological strategies for violence prevention. The conference was a tremendous collaborative effort between a number of private and public organizations, and the book has provided the most comprehensive resource available for technology in the field of violence prevention.

Technology is already helping to prevent violence against women

While these conferences and competitions hold great promise for leveraging technology to prevent violence against women in the future, technology deployed around the world today is already making an impact.

Real-time violence mapping tools: In Egypt, where 83 percent of women have been exposed to sexual harassment, a tool called HarassMap receives reports of sexual harassment through SMS messages and uploads them in real time to a map that shows where sexual harassment is happening in Cairo. The map helps women avoid harassment and local authorities identify “hotspots” where harassment is happening so they can effectively intervene. The project also connects women with available resources in their community. Similar programs called “Maps4Aid” and “Street Watch Palestine” are being used in India and Palestine respectively to track violence against women and aid interventions.

In addition to helping with reporting and intervention, these programs help raise awareness and break the culture of silence around violence against women by allowing them to report attacks in a visible public forum.

Texting: Texting has proved to be a cheap and effective way to give victims of domestic violence a way to reach out for help in the case of intimate partner violence. In Ohio an SMS service called “FamilyFirst” was set up to allow victims to silently report incidents to a crisis worker or police officer without having to actually make a phone call. The program, which costs $380 to set up, processed thousands of text messages in its first year and helped to convict 18 abusers.

Public awareness campaigns and organizing tools: The power of social media to raise awareness alone should give us hope. While stories like those of Malala Yousafzai are tragic, there has never before been a moment when it was possible for her story and struggle to be tweeted to the world by a public figure with as much reach as The New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who equated her fight for gender equality with “the campaigns against slavery in the 19th century and against totalitarianism in the 20th century.” There has never been a moment—until now—when Malala’s neighbors would have had access to social-media outlets that they could use to organize public vigils in her honor that would have a global witness. The ability and revolutionary potential of largely egalitarian social platforms to raise awareness and allow women’s stories to be heard around the world should not be underestimated.

Other types of public awareness campaigns include Liz Claiborne’s “Love Is Not Abuse” iPhone app that is designed to educate the public about teen dating violence. With this app, parents can sign up to receive digital simulations of harassment through text, phone, and social media in real time—as examples of what their child might experience in an abusive relationship—in order to educate them about what to look out for when their teens are dating.

More traditional targeted public-service announcements have been also been effectively used in many countries. In India, for example, a public service campaign called “Bell Bajao”—or Ring on the Bell—encourages neighbors who hear a woman being battered to knock on her door and ask something like “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” as a nonaggressive way to disrupt the event, and to let the abuser know that the community has heard the violence and is watching his actions.

Other groups have mobilized to encourage girls and their communities to proactively develop ways to employ new media to empower themselves. A movement called “Take Back the Tech!” —a pun on “Take Back the Night,” a common organizing cry to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses—encourages 16 days of gender-based activism from November 25 to December 10 to use technology to end violence against women.

Information technology has also led to increased transparency and accountability for violence in a collective context where women’s liberty and physical safety is at stake in a larger movement. The Arab Spring is one of many examples in which new media has been used to contribute to political organizing and amplifying populist voices in a context where women have played a key role in advocating for themselves as part of a larger liberation movement. 

Opportunities and challenges in new media and violence prevention

The gender gap in the digital divide: While 9 out of 10 women report feeling safer with a mobile phone, there is a significant gender gap in mobile phone ownership between men and women worldwide. Women in the Middle East and Africa are 25 percent less likely than men to have a mobile phone, while women in South Asia are 37 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. And these gaps are even greater among the poor.

Similar gender gaps exist for other forms of connectivity such as access to the Internet. A major obstacle to executing violence prevention through technology will be the extent to which women can gain access to technological devices in hierarchal societies where they may not be economically or culturally empowered to obtain them.

Nonetheless, three-quarters of the world’s population currently has access to a mobile phone, and there are vast opportunities for helping the women and girls that do have access to mobile phones.

The power of big data: Data collected through various media tools will help experts across disciplines develop a better understanding of the factors underlying violence. The use of large datasets can help identify predictors of domestic and sexual violence and enable the development of more effective and collaborative strategies for intervention. The book published by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council has suggested direction for research and evaluation based on data that has been collected in recent years.

A double-edged sword: While new technologies such as those that include GPS tracking systems can increase women’s safety, they can also be used by abusers to have further control over their victims. Incidents of cyber stalking and digital abuse have been widely reported. It’s important that we consider collateral consequences in the development and implementation of prevention and intervention programs that utilize technological tools.

The United States and violence against women

Yesterday women in the United States celebrated as President Barack Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, after the bill was caught up in a lengthy political battle. House Republicans eventually dropped their opposition to provisions of the bill expanding protections for Native American women, immigrant women, and the LGBT community.

But the victory was bittersweet since the political battle would not have happened in the past. The Violence Against Women Act has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was first enacted in the 1990s and the recent politicization of the law is disheartening at a time when the needs of women are so great.

This International Women’s Day we are also reminded that our government has fallen behind in leadership on violence against women and other women’s rights issues in the international community. The United States is one of the only countries that still has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, an embarrassment that keeps us in the company of only five other countries: Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and the Pacific island nations of Palau and Tonga.

In recent years advocates have been successful in challenging the assumption that violence against women is inevitable and have motivated the world to see that it is in fact preventable when individuals and communities step up and intervene. New media is playing an important role in facilitating that process and the United States could be a leader in maximizing its effectiveness and realizing the potential of new media to help prevent violence. But that will only happen if we continue to demand that our government steps up to the plate for women and girls.

Lindsay Rosenthal is a Research Assistant with the Women’s Health and Rights and Health Policy teams at the Center for American Progress. Image by BigStockPhoto.

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