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Gender-Based Violence and Innovative Technologies: Opportunities, Challenges, and Ethical Considerations

Worldwide, one in three women suffer beatings, coercion into sex, or other abuse from an intimate partner during her lifetime, according to the UN, while one in five is a victim of rape or attempted rape. But the spread of mobile technology and the internet has great potential to combat gender-based violence at a scale never before seen.

Date & Time

Dec. 9, 2013
2:00pm – 5:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Worldwide, one in three women suffer beatings, coercion into sex, or other abuse from an intimate partner during her lifetime, according to the UN, while one in five is a victim of rape or attempted rape.

“Gender-based violence is a pervasive global challenge. It serves as a barrier to national economic and social advancement across the world,” said Alex Dehgan, former chief scientist and director of the Office of Science and Technology at the U.S. Agency for International Development, on December 9 at the Wilson Center. 

But the spread of mobile technology and the internet has great potential to combat gender-based violence at a scale never before seen, according to Christopher Burns, senior advisor and team lead for mobile access at USAID. Mobile phones and the internet give women mobility and freedoms – to speak to whomever they want, whenever they want – otherwise restricted in many parts of the world, and allow for crowd-sourced tools, like maps of assaults, and better reporting.

Wilson Center Rewind: "Can Technology Stop Gender Based Violence?"

Burns sees a cycle of uproar developing after recent high profile attacks, led by technology. Atrocities like the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman last year in India have spurred a plethora of advocacy campaigns on the internet. “It’s almost like clockwork; crime happens, technology response follows,” he said. Several innovative technology developers joined Burns and Dehgan to exhibit their work and discuss continued challenges.

New Tools for a New Generation

Bukeni Waruzi, senior program manager for Africa and the Middle East at WITNESS, explained how smartphone video technology can not only raise awareness but also force action in gender-based violence criminal cases. WITNESS worked with the London-based Guardian Project to create InformaCam, an Android application that allows users to attach important verification data – like time and location – to a video before saving it to a secure, cloud-based directory. Waruzi said they hope to use the service to provide citizen videos that meet standards for evidence and cannot easily be destroyed.

Filmmaker and Executive Director of Tech 4 Good Nancy Schwartzman created the award-winning Circle of 6 app for Android and iOS. Simple, but powerful, the program uses SMS-based coding to contact six friends at once with a preset message, from requesting a walk home to an interrupting phone call. The initial goal was to empower young women in college and prevent gender-based violence before it happens. Schwartzman said that an important part of the development was speaking to students through focus groups and ensuring the app is empowering rather than “victim blaming.” “A lot of services for young women tell them how to dress and to watch their drink,” said Schwartzman, “I thought we were past that.” Circle of 6 gives users a quick out in threatening situations and builds a community of caretaking through each user’s chosen six.

In India, where Circle of 6 saw a surge in downloads after the New Delhi gang rape last summer, Mohini Bhavsar of Dimagi India, said “the notions around gender-based violence and the taboos and sensitivity around these types of issues” are so strong, health workers themselves may have “preconceived notions” that are detrimental to identifying the warning signs of gender-based violence. Dimagi developed a workflow for CommCare, a mobile phone program designed to guide rural health extension workers through a registration process and series of screening questions for warning signs of violence. “The counselors have to be very receptive to the response of the survivor, and so you don’t necessarily want to build a system that’s very automated,” explained Bhavsar. The program includes both a direct and indirect assessment guide to help start conversations sensitively.

New mobile phone applications alone won’t eradicate gender-based violence, but they have unprecedented reach. “Quite simply, the mobile phone is the single most common denominator for sharing information at scale,” said Burns.

The Importance of Evaluation

As is the case elsewhere when it comes to gender equity, some of the most daunting challenges are underlying cultural norms. In the developing world, 16 percent fewer women use the internet than men, and this past September in Pakistan, a young mother’s family stoned her to death just for possessing a mobile phone. Bhavsar explained that “often programs experience a lot of challenge in defining counseling content that addresses gender issues. It’s very hard to formulate culturally appropriate messaging and culturally appropriate information.”

“Gender-based violence is such a complex issue, and it requires a lot of different kinds of services and coordination among services,” said Doris Bartel, senior director of gender and empowerment at CARE USA. “Those are very difficult and complex solutions to try to put together and require quite a bit of resources.”

In her research, Nancy Glass, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health found that no one had ever formally evaluated the effectiveness of internet-based support tools for gender-based violence victims. Together with the IRIS Project, Glass put together a study of two tools: the internet-based Safety Decision Aid and a smartphone app called One Love MyPlan. The website and application aim to give women in the United States “a tool to assess their own risk for severe or lethal violence,” Glass explained. Now in the fourth year of a five-year trial, qualitative assessments show that women feel “more support” using the aid and are “less conflicted about decision making.” But Glass said she would still like a better understanding of what safety looks like in a low-resource environment before bringing the study to other countries.

“The Power to Change What Is Possible”

Adapting these new technologies to local environments and using them systematically is the next step, according to Burns. There are plenty of innovative mobile technology tools already, he said, and “what is so powerful about internet and mobile-enabled solutions is they provide a sense of optimism and hope that we can collectively spark action and turn tides by amplifying the number of voices and advocates.”

“It is ultimately these types of tools…that will give us the greatest ability to change the landscape and to change the asymmetries that are out there,” Dehgan said. “Technology is not the sole solution that we have, but it has the power to change the reality of what is possible.”

Event Resources:

Drafted by Laura Henson, edited by Schuyler Null.

Sources: AllAfrica, The Guardian, The Independent, International Telecommunication Union, One Love Foundation, Portland State University, United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign, World Economic Forum.

Video: Nancy Schwartzman/Circle of 6.


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