Smartphones Supporting Survivors

Learn about one entrepreneurial women’s vision to inform and support survivors of gender based violence using smartphones

Kirthi Jayakumar was born in Bangalore, and grew up between her grandparents’ home in Bangalore and with her mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I was completely inspired by how Kirthi has taken her experience as a survivor of Gender Based Violence and translated it into a powerful innovative smartphone application to support other survivors all-the-while driven by her unique entrepreneurial spirit! This new app is called Saahas which means courage in Hindi!

In the era where smartphones are getting cheap and cheap phones are getting smart, I wanted to see what lessons Kirthi had to share. Here’s what she has to say. Before we get going you should know this:

  • Violence Against Women and Girls is a global problem. During their lifetime 35% of women globally will experience physical or intimate partner violence (WHO)
  • During their lifetime 37% of women in India will experience physical or intimate partner violence (UN Women)
  • In the last year alone 24% of women in India have experienced physical or intimate partner violence (UN Women)

Tell me more about your professional background

I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of “helping people”, until I realised that I could do that with development, too. I studied Law in Chennai, mostly out of the fact that my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father’s practice. Once I left law school, I began working — I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation — they were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception. That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai. To put money in the bank (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit), began freelancing with a bunch of local publications and a bunch of legal journals and publishing initiatives. With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similarly, for food, education, health care, infrastructure, jobs and what have you. That was when it hit me: there’s so much sitting on one domino: gender inequality. If we knocked it, this enormously global burden of inequality could just, just be knocked out. I do not have a background in IT or in STEM — I taught myself to code and cried my way through the process, but I managed just fine.

Can you tell me more about your personal experience of violence and what help was, or was not available for you? What finally gave you the strength to stop things?

I faced sexual abuse, bullying and racist violence through my childhood, teens and teens-and-early adult years. I fed into my own silence out of fear when all these incidents happened — and that fear was preyed upon to keep the violence alive. I don’t think anything I actively or personally did culminated in the end of the abuse — I was just no longer in those environments that exposed me to the violent people who harmed me. In hindsight, though, I realize that I did not have the safe spaces to open up — because an abuser speaks to a child and a teen with fear-mongering as a weapon.

What was your experience of recovery and the support available?

Recovery was tremendously, tremendously unique. My mother is an alternative healer and a life coach — and coming out with my story to my mother after twenty years of silence led me to learn that a mother can set her own emotions aside and become her child’s therapist without an iota of bias. She has helped me sail through, and kept me up by remaining a silent pillar of support. I didn’t need to go beyond home to find help — it was a unique privilege.

How did you get the idea to make the app?

In May last year, a friend who had just moved to the United Kingdom after her wedding in January 2015, left me thirty-one calls and sixteen messages on WhatsApp that night, asking for help. I normally sleep for two-three hours every night, but that night, I was out cold by 10 and was up the next morning at 6. She was caught without a way out of an abusive relationship. Her husband monitored her phone and laptop, and locked the house when he left it, leaving her behind. He beat her, often times being aggravated when she screamed for mercy. On many days she slept without food because he didn’t let her eat. I would learn later that she had been putting up with this for nearly 13 months. She couldn’t Google the nearest shelter or emergency support services, because using her phone meant that he could trace her. After sending me the messages, she pulled out her SIM Card and cut it up, left her phone behind, and managed to slip out of the house. She made her way to the closest railway station; as a foreigner who had not yet become a citizen, she wasn’t aware of what rights she had on foreign soil. She spent a day switching trains until she could muster enough courage to call home and ask for the help of her parents in India. They were able to get in touch with a shelter, where she was taken care of. Her father brought her back to India, where she now lives, while proceedings for her divorce are underway. Her story shook me up. She had put her trust in me, and I was asleep. What if there were many women like her, seeking help from across oceans, simply because they don’t know how to seek help locally? What if they continue to be vulnerable to abuse or violence, and can’t seek help because they have no access to the outside world? I wanted to do something about it.

I spent a couple of weeks talking to women to understand the factors that could hinder one’s access to crisis response. Most of the answers were obvious: lack of money, awareness, knowledge of a foreign language if they were in a different country. Then came the ones that were harsh to digest: one survivor was afraid to Google help because it left traces on the browser history — and she worried about forgetting to erase the entries in her nervousness. Another survivor told me her former partner had installed spyware in her system — and she had no idea because it was so inconspicuous. An aid worker volunteer said that fear came from being unable to verify the authenticity of a care provider — given that many organizations are forced to cut down on intakes, services, or programs, or even close down, for want of funds. I had kicked the hornet’s nest. I was dealing with something that was so huge, it was no exaggeration to say that the nuances had nuances. I spent restless hours brainstorming the many dimensions to fill the gap between services and victims in need of those services. Then the idea struck me: what if there was a way to verify organizations in cities around the world, and present the data so that women anywhere could access a service they most needed? What if, then, this mapped data could feed into a mobile app that could be accessed by women anywhere? So a mother in India could get in touch with a shelter or the police in the UK to ensure that her daughter was rescued, or a girl in Singapore could help her sister in Ireland access urgent medical care by accessing the resource appropriately for her.

Can you tell me more about the development process?

I worked with volunteers from my team at the Red Elephant Foundation, as well as the UN Online Volunteering program. We split a massive list of 197 countries among us, and by the end of two months we had a list of 5000 organizations around the world who provided aid to women who have survived violence. After the data collection I spent each night verifying that the organizations were functional: inquiry calls to their lines, online website verification, their social media presence, and conversations with people in the areas these organizations were in. Slowly as the map took shape, we realized there were entire countries that appear not to have comprehensive services. There were several segments of areas such as far Eastern Russia, parts of Central Asia and Africa that had little to no data that was accessible. It had also become apparent that we couldn’t have all the answers and find all the organizations in all cities of the world (although the aim is to get there). We decided to make it a crowdsourced map, where people could submit reports of organizations, that we could verify and add. I started to build the data into a crowdmap. Inspired by Harassmap and Safecity, I realized there was a sense of clarity, ease and fluidity when data is visualized — rather than a downloadable directory or a pair of drop-down menus.

When visualized, data helps see where resources are inadequate — so even aid providers can establish initiatives accordingly — to cover areas that are otherwise unattended to. Our team split the data into categories and mapped them with color codes: Legal help, Medical help, Resources (Food, Shelter, Clothing and Supplies), Education and Empowerment Programs, Police, Consular and Ambulance services. Right now, I’m also adding child sexual abuse support initiatives. When we had mapped about 97 countries, I made it live from our website. We assumed no one would notice, and went about data mining. Little did we know that impact was taking shape. A young lady in Sri Lanka was suspicious of her sister’s behavior. Her sister, married and settled for close to three years in Europe, would call home once every two weeks, seemingly normal. Eventually it became apparent to the sister in Sri Lanka that her sister in Europe was facing violence. The young lady in Sri Lanka follows our website, and in her curiosity she had stumbled onto the map. As luck would have had it, we had mapped a bunch of crisis response centers in her sister’s city. She called one, and with the help of the police, her sister was rescued. At some point in the process I was beginning to wonder if this task made sense at all, but the universe found its way of bringing this powerful story to me at the right time. Soon, with some research, it was apparent that only a few women would access the platform on a computer and more of them used phones. So how would I get this across to them again? Through an app, of course. A few coders came forward to volunteer their services, but however well-meaning, time was of essence and they didn’t have enough to spare. A corporate house agreed to get on board, but like a relationship where the partners lapse into silence and walk their ways one fine day, that bond splintered. Then, I decided I would learn to code and do it myself. I wanted to this so badly, and I was willing to learn coding from scratch. With time not in my favour, I turned to a brilliant course on Coursera called “CODAPPS: MobileCoding for Entrepreneurs.” It made me cry, it drove me furiously mad, because I just wasn’t getting it. I’m always analytical and cause-effect in my thinking, but being one to work with emotions, situations and real people, I wasn’t fluent in machine. When I realized that coding from scratch was not going to get me there as quickly, that I was terribly rough around the edges, and that while I decided I would code, I could also rely on what they call “SDK” in the coding world — i.e., software development kits. I learned about them on the course, and found this brilliant website called AppyPie. These blocks of pre-coded technology help you rely on several functionalities to put the choicest features together to build your app. It was smooth sailing, easy to understand and also gave me the flexibility to visualize things as I built it.

What does an app do that is not already possible through other means?

Survivors who have faced violence either don’t know where to go for help, or don’t have resources to find out where to go for help. Sometimes, their situation prevents them from finding help, and that can be extremely dangerous to their safety. Research by the Red Elephant Foundation found that many women couldn’t search for resources online due to search engine trails that they couldn’t always successfully erase. Furthermore, many women were unsure of the credibility of the organizations themselves. Recognizing the gap in access, The Red Elephant Foundation chose technology as a means to intervene and assist access. Saahas has been coded and structured entirely by the founder, Kirthi Jayakumar, and resources have been found, verified and placed on the map by a dedicated team of volunteers from around the world. Saahas offers a survivor and a bystander:

  1. A one-click platform that can be accessed from anywhere to identify the nearest provider of services for a survivor. Instead of Googling services and leaving a trail where one remains in a vulnerable situation, this one-link- access is easy to delete from browser histories.
  2. A glimpse to aid workers and donors to identify areas that don’t have resources altogether or resources of a particular kind, so that they may device appropriate intervention strategies.
  3. A comfortable space for inter-organizational collaboration and referral, where organizations can help survivors in other countries access help, or, can refer survivors who come to them, to others to respond to particular needs.

What are people saying about the app so far?

This is an essential tool for women experiencing violence around the world — let’s spread awareness! This map by The Red Elephant Foundation has more than 5,000 entries, including Womankind partners, offering legal, medical, resources (food, shelter, clothing), education, economic, and police and ambulance support to help survivors of gender-based violence access services in confidence. — Womenkind Worldwide
This is an incredibly important tool for people facing violence and abuse (and those who love them), who otherwise may have no means to seek help or support. Exhaustive and comprehensive, the information is easily accessible and covers a range of services which could potentially save lives. More importantly, as a free public resource the map breaks the initial economic and social barriers of access to services for people who need them.- Alex Murphy, Athena Network

Do you have any aspirations or plans for this app in the future? What are you going to do next?

The dream is to include more organizations — right now, we have about 20,000 support organizations, but I want to be able to access more cities, towns and villages world over through greater collaborations and on-ground data access. I also want to partner with organizations for the delivery of the app on a service-delivery model.

For more information and to download the application please follow the link below.