How technology is enabling a new generation of change-makers fighting violence against women

Originally posted on GenderIt.org. Also published on Huffington Post.

Tara is a 26 year old aspiring computer engineer based in Oman. She has always excelled at her classes, exams, internships and appears to live a normal life. But what no one knows is that when at home, Tara is battling physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse at the hands of her family. During a particularly period of abuse, she was burnt, spent a year locked up and had her phone taken away. By hiding two pairs of cellphones and using the computer at her university, she is now fighting to get out of Oman and the control of her parents . She got in touch with CHAYN, the charity I run, a few months ago, by finding us through a simple Google search for charities addressing forced marriage and with our help, she will soon be out of the abuse she has been trying to get out of for the last 7 years.

There are many other Tara’s in the world. According to the UN, 1 in 3 women around the world face violence. This violence ranges from wage pay gap, sexual harassment and rape to domestic violence, “honour based violence” and human trafficking. 1 in 10 girls (aged 15) have experienced sexual harassment in Europe and 30% of all women in the world face partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner. A severe lack of data about violence against women before the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation started looking at collecting and linking big data (though sadly not always open data) from multiple agencies. Violence against women is the silent epidemic enveloping every community in the world.

With the rise of initiatives such as Everyday Sexism, Code girl projects, Harassmap, Hollaback, personal safety apps and social media campaigns to stand for survivors of violence, tech is now being called the ‘silver bullet’ to fight violence against women. As technology use becomes more widespread, and its use as a tool for scaling up and automation spread wider than the tech and commerce industry, more agencies are looking at using tech for fighting one of the largest problems facing our society today: violence against women. Organisations are using digital technology such as websites, mobile, social media, sms-to-web, coding classes, apps and high tech solutions such as drones to innovate solutions that empower women against violence.

The odds of using tech

It is tempting to view Tech as a silver bullet but it is not. There are many reasons why using technology to empower women against violence is particularly challenging — sometimes, uniquely challenging. The first and most common question I’m asked is, do vulnerable women have access to technology? The answer is not so simple. In short — it depends on a mixture of factors such as socio-economic background, cultural landscape of the country and the personal circumstances of women and their abusers.

In the developing world, 200 million fewer women than men use the internet and 300 million fewer women own a mobile phone. Access to internet-enabled devices has been found to be key for ensuring gender-equality in the long run (No Ceiling, 2015). Of the women with access to internet and phones, 30% report earning additional income, 45% report searching for jobs, and 80% report improving their education. This is the segment of women targeted by ‘tech for good’ initiatives.

Yet, in the conservative parts of countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a mobile phone is seen as the gateway to an immoral life and women can be killed if they are found with one. In nearly every part of the world, phones and internet are often the first thing to be closely monitored or taken away from oppressed women at the first sign of strength. In some countries, male members of the family can legally or informally request telecommunication companies and police to tap the phones of their wives, daughters and sisters if they have escaped the abuse.

Due to the nature of abuse and how it is entrenched and enforced by communities that women grow up loving, there is shame in reporting. Where laws and customs are against women, there is little respite in tech. Women may be inclined to report what goes on in their life to vent, share and stand for justice but expecting a hashtag or web/phone app to solve centuries of oppression is not possible and may be missing the point entirely.

Still, domestic abuse is arguably the most common form of violence against women and contrary to common belief, affects women from all walks of life across the world. While most of these women will not have access to an internet-enabled phone, the number of women who do is increasing rapidly.

As the founder of a ‘tech for good’ charity, CHAYN, I understand the challenges faced by women facing violence and have helped set up multiple digital platforms and written “how-to” guides to address them. Leveraging simple technology can be very effective but it is not without challenges. Technology is cheap, durable and it’s easily trackable. We started the online platforms with as little as £360 and they’ve been viewed by thousands of women. Digital platforms can be optimised for a number of audiences within hours and new content can be uploaded within seconds. None of these things are unique to tech solutions for other social problems such as unemployment but the one thing that makes tech really suitable for violence against women is the unique opportunity to reach vulnerable women discreetly. Internet history is easily deletable whereas meeting with charities one on one or having paper materials at home pose greater risk. Many women living with domestic violence, forced labour or stalking are closely monitored and not allowed to leave the house. These women cannot go up to a local NGO without risking their lives and this applies to virtually every corner of the world. Digital platforms, social media and mobile apps put help at the palms of women, giving them the flexibility of accessing help when it is safe to do so.

Criticisms of elitism often levelled at tech initiatives for women look at the issue through the lens of an uninformed observer. There is no universal solution that can tackle the wide spectrum of injustice and cruelty women face, but technology can help us reach and engage a significant portion of this group.

Do you know an IT/New Tech based innovation that prevents violence against women? Nominations are now open for the 2016 Womanity Award, which supports and scales proven, innovative, and replicable approaches to preventing violence against women: https://womanity.typeform.com/to/LCXhA8