Reinventing the Rules

Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects

Event Recap: Gender-Based Violence and Innovative Technologies

Last week, the Wilson Center hosted an event on “Gender-Based Violence and Innovative Technologies: Opportunities, Challenges, and Ethical Considerations”. All of the panelists did a great job highlighting how their mobile apps have combated GBV. While one panelist talked about using the video component on mobile phones to document evidence for court cases, another panelist discussed her experience using a mobile app in health clinics to identify domestic violence. Panelists also talked about an app to help women determine what their safety priorities and needs are when faced with inter-partner violence and how transformative mobile apps have been in helping girls and young women learn about dating violence, abuse, and sexual assault. You can read a summary of the event below or watch the video here!

Credit: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Image

Credit: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Image

Christopher Burns, Senior Adviser and Team Lead for Mobile Access, Office of Innovation and Development/Alliances/Mobile solutions, USAID

Mobile handsets are on pace to surpass the global population sometime in the next few months. Technology based efforts fall broadly into or across four categories: tools for victims and survivors, tools for advocates, tools to provide voice and empowerment, and tools to crowdsource, map, and share information. They offer users redundant options for alerting family and friends in times of danger, via SMS, automatic phone calls, email and facebook. They use online forums for submitting reports, pinpointing locations of a text, and uploading photographic evidence where feasible and appropriate. And they enable GPS functionality to aggregate and map real time locations of violence. Predominantly, though not exclusively, the mobile apps require the use of a smart phone. The bulk of these tools offer anonymous reporting, a critical component to making people safe and making these technologies successful.

To hear a description of mobile apps and innovative technologies that are being used to fight GBV, click here. It starts at 19:25.

The mobile phone itself has also contributed to greater incidents of GBV. How then do we balance technology as a life enhancing and GBV prevention tool against this backdrop of violence against women as a result of their mobile use? So what’s missing? I’ll give 6 points, but there are certainly more.

  1. Despite advances made, only 39% of the developing world owns a mobile phone. There are also considerable gender gaps with respect to gender mobile ownership and internet use.
  2. Several of the tools highlighted today are only available in select languages thereby limiting who can use them. Moving forward efforts will want to consider other technologies such as voice response, automatic voice prompts we’re used to in the States, so more people can access the platform and report incidents in their own language,
  3. Awareness building is important, powerful, but not enough. Advocacy efforts must be linked with a broader set of support structures and services at the community level that allows survivors to find some level of normalcy and continue to be engaged, productive citizens. Technology tools can’t be applied in a vacuum.
  4. Many apps are designed for smart phones or require internet access and this limits their availability. Smartphone penetration remains low and costs remain high.
  5. Africa trails other regions in applying technology solutions. I doubt it’s in direct correlation to mobile adoption because Africa is growing faster than any other place in the world. Either the technology is being designed without fully understanding the wants and needs of its users or efforts aren’t reaching the right audiences. Regardless, more of a push needs to happen in this region.
  6. Access to mobile phone or the internet is not enough, particularly when these tools are in the hands of other family members or neighbors and cannot be used at a moment’s notice. A broader understanding of application of access is required. Beyond infrastructure and connectivity, this includes people’s understanding of what mobiles can do to improve their lives, reducing the costs of handsets, services and data packages, greater technology and traditional literacy, having content that is relevant and local to people’s lives, and addressing the cultural attitudes around women owning and using these tools.

Bukeni Waruzi, Senior Program Manager for Africa and the Middle East, WITNESS

Title of Presentation: Using Video to Document Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Women and Men: Ethics, Safety, and Security

I lead our GBV campaign in conflict situations and part of the mission is to empower local activists to safely and ethically use video as a tool to document and do advocacy on SGBV. We have trained thousands of activists working on GBV and other issues. I’m going to share some of the experiences we have learned on GBV on how activists are documenting sexual abuses across the world. We have primarily focused our work in Zimbabwe, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and also Sierra Leone during the conflict.  One of the things I’ll be talking about is how you collect the interviews which can be used as evidence in a court of law and also in advocacy. I’ll also talk about volume. The assumption is everyone who has a mobile phone can film. So we have this challenge of having a massive volume of video coming from everywhere. In Sierra Leone, we had hundreds of thousands of footage. I’ll talk about how you can safely and ethically document and also talk about key considerations.

When we do interviews, we try to make sure before, during, and after the interview, activists are trained on how to professionally do that. We need to find a credible interviewee to evaluate safety and security and to secure informed consent. We’re not journalists, we’re advocates, so when they collect informed consent, they have to follow a professional process given the security issues and also make sure tools and equipment are well prepared.

Disconnect Between Interviewer & Survivor

During the interview, one of the challenges witnessed so far is sometimes there is a disconnect between the story that the woman is telling and the person who is interviewing. One is just interested in collecting the story and they’re not compassionate and it makes the victim or survivor feel as though the person is just interested in collecting the story and they just want to take it somewhere.

Re-Traumatization During the Interview

There’s also the issue of re-traumatization. [Picture on PowerPoint slide] The girl is saying [during the interview] “but tonight I’ll have nightmares recalling what happened during my captivity.” We try to remind partners, it is very key to remember that recalling the whole story can sometimes be re-traumatizing.

Empowering the Interviewee & Preserving Footage

After the interview, you always have to have a safety and security plan and clarify next steps with the interviewee. It’s about how you involve the interviewee in the process, so she feels she’s part of process, and she’s not being used in the process. It’s a process where she’s involved, she has a say and she has the power to make some decisions as well. Preservation is also important. We’ve noted that many people after they collect the footage, archiving becomes an issue. They don’t know where to stock  it because it’s massive and don’t have equipment to do that.

Key Considerations

  • Re-traumatization & Distrust: I’ve seen time after time, when you secure the interview, and then the next day you get a call from the interviewee “I don’t want it anymore.”
  • Expectation: I have many examples where Mzungu [Caucasians] come down, and they go visit women in the village to collect an interview, and she expects something. It’s something filmmakers face.
  • Safety: In conflict and non-conflict situations, partners have documented situations where both the interviewees and filmmakers face safety issues.
  • Culture and Values: Sometimes we don’t share the same values with the interviewee.
  • Literacy: We’ve tried to secure consent where we come with a sheet of paper to get written consent and it’s in very legal language so the interviewee doesn’t understand it. So we try to use language that could be understood by the interviewee.
  • Advocacy: When any activist approaches a survivor, the expectation is that her story will serve as a tool for advocacy, but sometimes advocacy goals aren’t made, and it becomes a disappointment for the activist and the interviewee. 

App that Blurs Face While Filming

We wanted to protect the identity of people in the video and we came up with the idea of Obscure Cam. It’s very simple and you can download it to your cellphone. When you take a picture or use video, you can blur the face while filming.

Safety and Ethical Considerations

InformaCam: App to Help with Verifiability & Authentication

The challenges we face include the volume, verifiability, credibility, and authentication of your footage. We’ve been working with a partner to build an app called InformaCam. It can help you verify and use footage that you have for evidentiary purposes. We’ve seen in recent years how courts and tribunals have been using some of the videos as evidence.

Submitting Video as Evidence in African Courts

In Africa, we’ve worked with the African Commission on Human Right (ACHR) on a case involving the Kenyan state and indigenous people, who were fighting eviction through domestic courts. It didn’t work and they took their case to the ACHR. It couldn’t have worked without introducing the video as evidence. That was the first time the ACHR had to accept video as evidence. The Kenyan state also submitted video, but it was rejected because it didn’t meet evidentiary standards. So we’ve been working to think through some kind of standard that could help the court and tribunal to advance the African criminal justice system.

In the Thomas Lubanga case at the International Criminal Court, 30% of the evidence was video and this was key to securing the sentence against Thomas Lubanga. More and more videos are being used to advance international criminal justice. We’ve been thinking about how a court or system can set up a standard to allow citizen witnesses, when they collect footage, to be accepted in a court of law to advance justice for victims because each court has its own rules of evidence.

Storing Film

The issue now is the high end. The way it works is that you can film right now, and footage will be secured in a remote place. This will be something that any court or judge could refer to verify the time or veracity of the event. This can be verifiable through InformaCam. Now we’re trying to look at the depository mechanism to make sure the film can be securely and safely stored. In the next month or so, we will have a global launch, so this tool and app can be accessed.

Useful Materials

Mohini Bhavsar, Manager of Field Operations, Dimagi India

Title of Presentation: Design and Implementation of Mobile Apps for Global Health

I represent Dimagi and the project I’m about to share involves a Commcare platform, which is a mobile case management software that runs on Nokia (Java phones) or Android phones.  This year, Dimagi collaborated with organizations in Bangalore to create a GBV screening tool. The tool is used by auxiliary nurse midwives (ANM) that work in primary health centers. They have a screening protocol to assess whether pregnant women or mothers that are coming into their centers are showing warning signs of GBV. In Bangalore’s urban based slums, health centers are observing 15-20 cases of GBV a day. In April 2013, we had 10 auxiliary nurse midwives using Commcare to screen for GBV. Primary health centers offers a safe and timely entry point for gender based screening because women come to get prenatal and antenatal care and will come to make sure their children get the immunizations they need.

Components of Case Management Mobile App

The Soukhya mobile component consists of 3 forms. The first is a registration form. When pregnant women or others come to the primary health facility, an ANM will register the person in the phone. Identifying information such as name and expected date of delivery will be filled out. Once their case is registered, they’ll appear in a case list and the ANM can scroll down to the patient’s name and select a case which will provide a bunch of questions about warning signs. The questions are divided into indirect and direct questions and the ANM will start with indirect questions. If the questions are answered yes, a set of direct questions will be displayed. If Inter-partner violence is identified for the patient, the ANM will fill out a referral checklist and can provide information on counseling, shelters, and legal services. The app is facilitated with media so there’s audio and images. This is important because a lot of health workers are illiterate. The app helps the ANM through the GBV counseling.

Ensuring Privacy of Domestic Violence Survivors

One of the ways we deal with this on the technical side, is we restrict the use of phones in the facility, so health workers aren’t taking their phone into the community. There’s no sharing of devices, only one person can use each phone. The app is also password protected with a unique password and user name for each ANM, so no one can access each other’s data.

Ensuring confidentiality is also important. Some programs don’t even register the names. They’ll just stick to patient codes so they really try to anonymize the data. We also de-identify data on the back end. In thinking about web users and who’s accessing data on the back end, we can build mechanisms to encrypt data and control who has access to it.

Taboos & Building Capacity of Health Workers

There’s sensitivity and taboos around the notions of GBV. The health workers may believe in something we want to change and we can do this through capacity building. So a lot of the program encourages and builds the capacity of health workers to counsel and identify GBV issues better because they may have preconceived notions that are detrimental to what the program is trying to achieve. Aside from managing cases through their phone, health workers also have free flow content so they can self-learn.

Consent & Flexibility of the App

Consent is also important. Before health workers use the tools, they must seek consent and if it’s not given they can’t use the mobile tool, but they can still do it on paper.  Counseling also needs to be unstructured for GBV. Different messages have to go to women during different trimesters of their pregnancy and counselors have to be receptive to the responses of survivors. So we don’t want to build a system that’s too automated. We added flexibility in the mobile app. Also the dynamics of counseling may change. You have to pay attention, be compassionate to the story she’s telling you and you have to balance that with entering data. The protocol is simple, so health workers can adapt to the situation.

Scaling Up & App Library

We want to broaden the content of GBV. We don’t want to only focus on GBV through the app but we want to develop content for women’s empowerment in general. What other self learning modules are health workers interested in? Is it phone literacy, agricultural information? What other learning modules are important for women’s empowerment? We also have a Commcare exchange, where we allow organizations to share apps they developed with other organizations, so no one has to start from scratch. They can adopt and scale up.

Nancy Glass, Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing; Associate Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health

Title of Presentation: Internet Smart Phone/Safety & Health: Is it Effective?

When I’m talking about decisional conflict for survivors of inter-partner violence, we all know women are weighing every day the safety for themselves, their children, and other members of their family. They’re making complex decisions and it’s not linear. This is about helping a woman think about her safety and the safety of her family.

What is a Safety Decision Aid?

You may have used this in a clinical visit. We use it to help people make decisions. I know from my work with survivors, how they’re weighing the pros and cons. Should I stay in the relationship because I need safe housing or should I stay because due to my job, I don’t have transportation. All these decisions are being made. I went to the literature and realized we had never had an evaluation of safety planning. It’s the cornerstone of what we all do for survivors but no one’s ever looked at whether it’s effective or not.

We developed a smartphone app. We developed the first tool with a lot of input from survivors and advocates around the country. We then took it to shelters and support groups with survivors to get their input and we tested it. They gave us really good input and we saw some impact. Then we wanted to scale it up after the revisions. We’re in the 4th year or a 5 year trial and we’re in 4 states: Oregon, Arizona, Missouri, and Maryland.

For one part of the app, we wanted to give women a tool to help them assess their own risk for severe/lethal violence. We also have a version for women in same sex relationships and for women who are immigrants. Based on data the women enter they will get the relevant assessment tool.  Then we want her to consider her own safety priorities. The evidence tell us, there are 5 priorities we see consistently: safety, her children’s safety, having resources, her privacy and confidentiality, and feelings for her partner.

We have a priority setting tool where they’re weighing their priorities. And then we give them immediate feedback. The key here is personalizing safety decisions for her: helping her link to her priorities and her level of danger.  For example there’s going to be immediate information on safety related to a gun in the home, or if she’s interested in custody issues or visitation programs. We ask her to put her zip code in and we link her to the local resources. In some places, like Oregon, resources may be 200 miles away, so we’re trying to link her to the state hotline or other hotlines that can help her narrow down to her area.

The Use of Safety Aids by Young Women & Friends

With the app, we have a component for friends. We know that young women in college campuses seek out their friends for information. We know that friends may want to help but we also know they may have no idea how to help. We have a danger assessment tool for friends to go through. We know this works.  They may not know everything, but they can get an idea of how dangerous a situation is and it can help them think through how to help their friend. The other thing we found out when we did focus groups of college-aged women is that they’re afraid to go to the health center because they’re afraid it’ll be billed to their parents, so they’re not going.

Accessibility Challenges

It is estimated that only 10% of survivors ever access formal services. There are great services all over the world, but we don’t get people to them. 77% of women found us through craigslist, 40% of survivors self-identified as racial/ethnic minorities and 11% of survivors identified their abusive partner as a woman. Where do people go to find us? 50% access us through online while at home. They also access the website through their workplace, public library, or through a community worker. Other accessibility challenges include:

  • Keeping up with changing technology;
  • Resource Links: We don’t have a single group in the US that keeps up to date with all the resources state-wide and nationally;
  • Reaching rural women;
  • Reaching Spanish-speakers; and
  • Access to safe computers and smart phones


We keep information on mental health and we started to see suicidality. These are things to expect with domestic violence and inter-partner violence. We got women to tell us how they wanted to get information about safety and suicide. We now have a pop up window that says “would you like us to call you now?”, and they can put in a safe number or they say I have somebody to talk to and I feel safe now but I know how to contact you. We have options they can choose from and we also provide everyone with the national suicide hotline and there’s a chat option.

After one use, survivors report less decisional conflict about their safety, less uncertainty, more clarity of their values, and more support over safety. But they don’t feel like they have enough information, so we feel the need to provide ongoing access to information.

Adapting Safety Decision Resource Aids

This was built for survivors, but it would be a great tool for people who don’t have smart phone apps or the internet but who have great providers in refugee camps. They can use a tool like this and talking through safety plans with them. But we need to have a better idea of what safety looks like in low resource settings. It doesn’t look like a shelter or a hotline.

Nancy Schwartzman, Filmmaker and Executive Director, Tech 4 Good, LLC

Title of Presentation: Can a Mobile App Track Sexual Assault and Enable Privacy? Lessons from Circle of 6

Circle of 6 is for iPhones and Androids and is an app that emphasizes privacy, community, simplicity and technology. When we think of tools, over 60% of college students are using smart phones and 90% say texting is very important to building friendships. In a recent report on women using mobile technology, 9 out of 10 women feel safer because they have a mobile phone.

So, we wanted to make something that was simple, that emphasized relationships and community building, which is so important for college students. Young people often go to each other in a peer to peer model and that can be disastrous if their peers are uninformed or if they’re products of similar cultures.

Adapting the App to Young People

Circle of 6 is the intersection to stories, privacy and interactivity. A lot of apps give information, but young people, and myself included, that’s not how I like to use it. I want my app to be interactive and connect to people and really in that way be social. We gained access and the trust of young people through college screenings. We did a lot of focus groups, in-person conversations, and as the app was being built, checking and verifying that the language was not victim blaming. It’s really important to always empower the young person, empower the user, and never blame or judge them for their behavior.

We wanted this to be easy to use, look fun, and kind of like a game, so if someone’s in an abusive relationship and a partner looks over their shoulder, it doesn’t look dangerous. It’s a cute thing that could be a game. Last year IOM did a study on how long young people stay on sites. If it’s pretty, engaging, and attractive, young people will want to engage with it. It’s mostly SMS-based. You need to download it, but you can choose someone to be part of your circle and they don’t need to have a smart phone, so it’s easily adaptable.

To view a video of how the mobile app works in practice, click here. It starts at the 1:35:49 time stamp.

Mobile App as an Educational Tool in Schools

Other ways we interact with users is through tweet ups and social media. Another piece of our campaign is the educational tool. We made a video to show how the app works and kept it very simple. What we didn’t expect were teachers in high schools and middle schools, who were desperate for content, to use our video to talk about dating violence. I heard from teachers via social media tweet ups saying they don’t have resources, so we teamed up with them and wrote healthy relationship tool kits using the language of young people. Young people will say they have drama, but they won’t say they’re in an abusive relationship. No kid is going to want to say I’m being bullied. The app is free and it’s being used in schools and 32 countries are using it.


We’re also moving toward non-smart phone apps of this platform to get it to people who don’t have a GPS capability. There are issues as to who pays for the SMS in an emergency and we’re looking at ways of working with mobile providers, if someone runs out of money on their phone.

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This entry was posted on December 16, 2013 by in Event Recap and tagged , .

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