Critical Mass? How the Mobile Revolution Could Help End Gender-Based Violence


Editor’s note: This blog post is by Christopher Burns, the senior advisor and team lead for mobile access in the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances/Mobile Solutions at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and was originally posted at New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change & Security Program at the Wilson Center.

The past three years – and more pointedly the past 12 months – have laid witness to monumental, if not heartbreaking, incidents of gender-based violence. The gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi last December; the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl left for dead in a pit latrine in Western Kenya last June; the mass sexual assault of women in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution in Egypt and since; all were high profile atrocities that ignited outrage around the world.

In the aftermath of each of these, mobile technology solutions and internet-based advocacy campaigns surged. It’s almost like clockwork: violence happens, a technology response follows. And 2013 has seen an explosion of new efforts.

This isn’t by coincidence. These web- and mobile-based technological retorts, from applications that make it easy to report and view information about attacks to “panic buttons,” are made possible by the mobile revolution and increased internet adoption, which bring stories of gender-based violence to more people than ever before and give us the ability to fulfill our visceral need to react, to do something, to drive change.

Much has been written about the power mobile phones wield for interacting with people from every corner of the world, at a magnitude never before experienced and perhaps even imagined. Mobile handsets are on pace to surpass the global population sometime in the next few months. Quite simply, the mobile phone is the single most common denominator for sharing information and for connecting individuals at scale.

When it comes to gender-based violence, this mobile explosion has particularly great potential. Mobile phones offer a level of autonomy and emancipation never before enjoyed by many women, leading to greater empowerment for those who possess them. And they give voice to victims, survivors, and bystanders, permitting healthy dialogue around what is sometimes an extremely taboo subject.

From Mapping Attacks to Safety Circles

One of the most immediate ways that NGOs and other organizations are helping women avoid danger is through new mobile applications. Most follow a similar format; they offer users multiple options for alerting family and friends in times of danger via SMS (“short message service,” or texting), automated phone calls, e-mail, and/or social media platforms, like Facebook. They use online forms for submitting reports, pinpointing locations of attacks, and uploading photographic evidence where feasible and appropriate. They enable GPS functionality to aggregate and map real-time locations of violence. And many of them employ the free and open source visualization and information collection platform, Ushahidi.

SafeCity India is a leading example. Its 1,600 reports, collected in under a year, have helped identify hotspots and “no go” zones around Mumbai and Delhi. “Panic button” and self-populated smartphone apps Circle of 6 and FightBack have also seen mass appeal in the country. India is clearly a front-runner in the adoption of these applications, speaking both to its tech savviness and unfortunate widespread need for such tools.

HarassMap also rises to the top, designed as a means of reversing the tide of pervasive sexual harassment of women in Egypt. Through SMS, online and e-mail reporting, its efforts center around the visualization of crowd-sourced maps showing areas for women to avoid and, in theory, for authorities to increase security measures. HarassMap has since expanded to 8 other countries, with another 11 in the works. Similar crowd-mapping has also been employed by the Open Institute in Cambodia and by Women Under Siege in Syria.

The magnitude of incidents over the past year has also sparked an uptick in sponsored, domestic violence-themed competitions and “hackathons,” in Nepal, Central America, and the United States. The winning entrants each possessed many of the same features discussed above, though they are tailored to local geographies, demographics, and conditions.

These mobile- and internet-based tools are but a mere sampling. Yet they beg the question, have we hit a critical mass? Yes and no.

What’s Missing?

Many of the existing apps, like those mentioned above, are designed for smartphones. Yet smartphone penetration is still relatively low, at 22 percent globally, 19 percent in India (2013), and only 4 percent (2012) in sub-Saharan Africa. Their costs remain high too, with entry-level handsets coming in at over $70 in most countries and data packages outside the reach of many underserved populations.

Adaption of these new reporting techniques is also uneven. Despite having the highest rates of violence against women in the world, and faster mobile growth than any other region, Africa remains widely untapped for the deployment of these technologies. It is only in South Africa and Egypt where we have witnessed considerable attention in terms of preventing gender-based violence through mobile solutions.

Still further, more user-centric design is needed. Understanding the wants and needs of mobile users is an absolute necessity. Yet despite the explosion of mobile apps in low- and middle-income countries, this tenet is often ignored. As such, many apps are doomed from the outset because either their interface is not intuitive (say, for those who are illiterate) or the content and mode of delivery do not address users’ experience or situation.

Finally, additional support structures and counseling services must be incorporated into these new applications. A return to some semblance of normality and the opportunity to be engaged, productive citizens is what many survivors crave and there’s little reason mobile technology can’t help in that respect as well. Technology tools are just that – tools – and cannot be applied in a vacuum.

The Beginning of the End?

It may be ambitious, but I would posit that we’ve arrived at a moment in time when we finally have a set of tools that can help virtually eliminate gender-based violence. But doing so requires new models of engagement, ones that benefit from a focus on these new technology applications.

That said, we don’t necessarily need more applications, competitions, or hackathons. What we need is to take the good ideas that already exist, modify them to meet local conditions and needs, and deploy them even more broadly in a coordinated fashion alongside other prevention and support activities. This includes continuing to build on open data platforms like Ushahidi, filling the substantial coverage gaps in Africa and elsewhere, and increasing the effectiveness of existing services.

As we close the chapter on this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, let us turn toward 2014. In the New Year, may there be an even richer application of technology designed to eliminate gender-based violence. And most importantly, may women and girls, and all survivors of gender-based violence, around the world feel safer than they did last year.

Sources: Bloomberg, Circle of 6, eNews Channel Africa, FightBack, GSMA Intelligence, HarassMap, Open Institute, Quartz, SafeCity, The New York Times, The White House, Women’s Media Center, World Bank.

Photo Credit: Young women with their mobile phones at a community meeting in Aurangabad, India, courtesy of Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank. Video: Nancy Schwartzman/Circle of 6.

About the author

Christopher Burns is the senior advisor and team lead for mobile access in the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances/Mobile Solutions at the U.S. Agency for International Development.


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