/ 24 November 2022

Digital technologies can help combat gender-based violence

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In light of the alarming statistics, there are growing calls globally to eliminate all forms of violence against children, women, men and the LGBTI+ community in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. Photo: Supplied

As we head into 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, we need to reflect on lost opportunities within the implementation of policies and programmes. Gender-based violence (GBV) is deeply rooted in gender inequality and continues to be one of the most notable human rights violations within all societies. GBV is violence directed against a person because of their gender. Although both women and men experience violence, the majority of victims are women, children and LGBTQI+ people. 

According to the World Bank, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence, 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner and as much as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.

In light of the alarming statistics, there are growing calls globally to eliminate all forms of violence against children, women, men and the LGBTI+ community in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. 

Digital technologies should integrate a trigger to connect survivors with trained professionals to maximise their safety. Photo: Supplied

We have had conversations about law reform, policy adaptation, programme implementation and so on, but we do not capitalise on the value of digital technology and how it can assist in combating GBV. Digital technologies are electronic tools, systems, devices and resources that generate, store or process data and can assist us in combating GBV in the following ways:

  1. The most common digital technology solutions to combat GBV are software applications (apps) or digital watches that are designed for emergency solutions. These apps or watches are effective in that they enable users to seek help in emergency situations by sending free alert messages to pre-set personal contacts such as family members, government authorities, women’s support groups and the police using geolocation.
  1. Digital technologies should integrate a trigger to connect survivors with trained professionals to maximise their safety. Those created to better connect survivors to pro-bono services are important. For example, apps, websites, SMS services or call centres that help link GBV survivors with pro bono lawyers and mental health professionals would assist in mitigating the access gap to these essential services. Due to limited availability of these professionals, some of these digital services train volunteers online and then match them to survivors based on proximity.
  1. Digital technology can offer great opportunities for improving the provision, reach and response quality of GBV legal service. For example, an open source technology solution for GBV case management could allow for safe and confidential data collection, electronic case referral and remote collaboration between caseworkers and supervisors. These digital technologies can go as far as capturing court-admissible forensic evidence from survivors of sexual violence and securely transmit data to police, lawyers, and judges or enable survivors to record incidences of abuse in a way that’s safe, secure and legally admissible.
  1. We may need to tap into unconventional digital technologies to raise awareness, educate the public and provide essential GBV information and gaming may be one of those unconventional methods. Although video games have a history of promoting misogyny and violence, we can create computer and mobile games that are created to educate players about GBV or to start conversations about GBV. A great example is an interactive game from Facebook called Hannah, where the gamer uses tools to assist Hannah, a victim of domestic violence.
  1. Mobile apps designed to provide the public with relevant resources including preventive information and key support services, such as specialised helplines and police stations, among other resources would be helpful. This does not have to be limited to mobile apps, but can extend as far as using SMS services, data-free websites or blogs, social media content creation and distribution tools or electronic books. For example, creating an ebook or mobile application that provides a guide and a map of GBV-related public services would contribute to raising awareness about GBV and form part of preventative approaches to combat this issue.
  1. The data safety and privacy of people and survivors must be at the forefront of any solution. Any data must be gathered anonymously, ensuring that no one has access to sensitive or identifiable digital data. Furthermore, careful consideration is needed about the storage, ownership and management of data. Any data collection or sharing must strictly adhere to confidentiality requirements, otherwise exposing people to potential targets, exploitation and abuse. Governments need to adapt proper regulations and laws to mitigate data sharing that results in any type of data exposure that has risk. The creation of digital systems to protect people’s data and information is important and regulating such systems is fundamental to their effective usage, especially in light of increasing usage of digital technologies and digital abuse.
  1. Sexual harassment in public transportation has become a reality for society, especially with e-hailing services. Governments need to regulate these services through the vetting process and ensuring that the e-hailing service apps include safety features such as fingerprint or facial recognition features that verify the identity of drivers, placing cameras on dashboards of the car, immediate response emergency features within their apps and so on. Digital technology can be used for innovative safety features, survivor support programmes and educating passengers, drivers and customer support agents.
  1. Governments can use apps, digital libraries and other digital technologies to provide vital training and knowledge exchange for staff supporting people affected by GBV. These staff can include law enforcement (police, lawyers and judges), forensic nurses and other healthcare service providers that work with victims of GBV, hotline agents and people who provide care to vulnerable people such as teachers, old age care-givers and mental health institution practitioners.
  1. Tech solutions can raise awareness and mitigate a user’s risk of violence. A good example of this is Safetipin which is a mobile app in Southeast Asia that crowdsources and maps real-time data from users to provide public safety information. The app utilises location safety scores to help users to plan their routes and find safe places to stay. Not only are apps like these good for risk mitigation but governments can use the data to guide the improvement of public safety with police patrols or cameras. 
  1. To address risks of sextortion and online harassment, an artificial intelligence  powered chatbot on Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and other social media platforms can be created to support people who are experiencing, witnessing or tackling online harassment by providing real advice and resources from experts and activists. Integrating discreet GBV information and referral details to those seeking help or disclosing risk or violence through the use of keyword recognition of high-risk words and phrases, such as “rape”, “hit” or “fear”, inputted by users on chatbots, can be programmed to trigger an automated safeguarding flow of GBV and psychosocial support information including details on services.
  1. Accurate and comprehensive data about GBV is important in fighting against the issue. Data is essential to understand GBV and for education and policy making. Digital technology initiatives and programmes that enable people to contribute data in the form of testimonials on GBV would be helpful because this data can be used to shape policy and develop innovative strategies to build safe and inclusive public spaces. For example, HarrassMap in Egypt collects stories on street harassment, gang abuse and more, and also maps where these incidents occur.
While digital technologies are bringing huge advantages to socioeconomic development and growth, they can also facilitate violence. Photo: Supplied

Digital technologies can help support survivors at home and address violence in public spaces. Yet, adapting these approaches to low- and middle-income settings requires careful consideration. With existing socio-economic divisions in society, the digital divide may create access gaps for survivors and victims to access these digital technologies.

Digital technologies can deepen exclusion if access isn’t considered upfront. Solutions that don’t require a lot of internet data or those that can be used without smartphones help make them more inclusive.

Multiple stakeholders have an important role to play in capitalising on digital technologies to combat GBV. The private sector is an important partner in developing technology-based solutions while the public sector can support an enabling environment through appropriate regulation and financing that can help to build the capacity of public services, including police, health and legal services. NGOs can help create consensus, the media can raise awareness, academia can test and verify the effectiveness of the technologies and GBV experts can help contextualise digital needs in light of the issue.

While digital technologies are bringing huge advantages to socioeconomic development and growth, they can also facilitate violence. As such, women and girls are the most vulnerable targets of online violence, including physical threats, sexual harassment, bullying, stalking, sex trolling and exploitation. Although there are many opportunities for digital technology to improve online protection, mitigate risks and respond to GBV, we need to ensure it is safe and less harmful to women and girls

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.