COVID-19 and related containment measures have triggered a shadow pandemic of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). This global scourge threatens the safety and well-being of millions of girls and women. Domestic violence reports have increased three-fold in many countries, and since most domestic violence goes unreported, the scope of the problem is likely to be much greater. This violence may be physical, sexual, verbal, psychological or economic – happening in homes, on the streets, and increasingly online.
Tech as a weapon or force for good?
While digital technology can bring huge advantages, there is no doubt it can also facilitate violence. Women and girls are more likely to be targets of online violence, such as physical threats, sexual harassment, bullying, stalking, sex trolling and exploitation.
We have seen this worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic: with increases in internet usage between 50% to 70%, there has been a surge in the non-consensual sharing of images, designed to threaten, shame and control women and girls. And online sexual exploitation and abuse of children has reached crisis level, with girls featuring in most online abuse materials.
There is an urgent need to address this online abuse, and to turn the tables and harness the power of technology as a force for good, also for gender-based violence prevention and response. UNICEF, as part of the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality and as a member of the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA), is committed to see bold advances to meet this demand.
The development of safe technology to address gender-based violence requires leadership by and collaboration with women and girls. The rights, needs, and wishes of survivors of violence, in particular must be central to design. Tools and technology should not expose women and girls to further harm. For instance, a survivor contacting support services online will be at greater risk of violence, if others can see evidence of these communications on her phone. Technology solutions must build upon the extensive and solid foundation of ethical standards and protocols of the GBV community, while meeting digital safety and privacy standards.
There are numerous ways technology can be a force for good. Below are six examples of how apps and digital platforms are being used to end gender-based violence and promote gender equality.
- Tech for prevention
Tech solutions can raise awareness and mitigate a user’s risk of violence. For example, Safetipin is a mobile app that crowdsources and maps real-time data from users to provide public safety information. The app utilises location safety scores to help the users – primarily women and girls – to plan their routes and find safe places to stay. Used by nearly 100,000 people in 65 cities, including in Jakarta, Indonesia, Safetipin data is also being used to guide the improvement of public spaces, to make them safer for women and girls. In Delhi, for example, data collected led to the city government addressing areas with poor safety scores, by installing 5000 streetlights and improving police patrols. A similar app, Ec Shlirë (Walk Freely), developed by Girls Coding Kosovo, enables users to discretely report instances of sexual harassment. These reports are visualised on an interactive map and shared with authorities.
- Tech as a peer
Another innovative tech use to address risks of sextortion and online harassment, is an AI-powered chatbot and fictional character, developed by Caretas in Brazil. The platform brings to life the story of 21-year-old Fabi Grossi, who discovers her ex-boyfriend has posted an intimate video of her online. The Facebook page and Messenger chatbot allow the user to interact with Fabi, listen to her story and learn from her experiences. Plan International has released chatbot Maru supporting girls and women who are experiencing, witnessing or tackling online harassment by providing real advice and resources from experts and activists.
- Tech as a safe space
Virtual safe spaces (VSS) facilitate access to information and services in a way that is safe, culturally appropriate and accessible to users, even when physical services are limited. Virtual Safe Spaces have been piloted for girls in emergency affected locations with information on gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, self-care and empowerment. Based on the lessons learnt, VSS will be revised and built out to benefit girls across countries.
- Tech as a safeguard
To increase safeguarding in COVID-19 online platforms and chatbots, UNICEF is integrating discreet gender-based violence information and referral details to those seeking help or disclosing risk or violence. Keyword recognition of high-risk words and phrases, such as “rape”, “hit” or “fear”, inputted by users on chatbots, will be programmed to trigger an automated safeguarding flow of GBV and psychosocial support information including details on services.
- Tech as a guide
The GBV e-pocket guide app provides humanitarian practitioners with information on how best to support survivors when there is no GBV expert or service available. During COVID-19, in Malaysia, the guide has been made disability accessible and translated into Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin by UNICEF together with grassroots women’s organizations who have local expertise and trust.
- Tech as a response
Technology also offers great opportunities for improved GBV service provision, reach and response quality. Primero/GBVIMS+ is an open source tech solution for GBV case management. The system, which includes a mobile app, improves quality of care for survivors in emergency contexts including Covid-19, with safe and confidential data collection, electronic case referral and remote collaboration between caseworkers and supervisors, deployed for example in Timor Leste and Indonesia. Another app, ROSA provides vital training and knowledge exchange for staff supporting people affected by gender-based violence. Medicapt is a mobile app, which captures court-admissible forensic evidence from survivors of sexual violence and securely transmits data to police, lawyers, and judges. While another app, VictimsVoice, enables survivors to record incidences of abuse in a way that’s safe, secure, and legally admissible.
Harnessing tech for good
There are many opportunities for technology to improve online protection, mitigate risks and respond to GBV – the use-cases are endless. We need to close the digital gender gap and ensure tech is safe and accessible to women and girls.
To reach the scale of change needed, the tech industry must be engaged, held to account, and encouraged to improve accessibility and incorporate violence prevention and response strategies in their initiatives. When developing tech solutions, we need solid user-centred design processes to understand the lives and realities of women and girls as well as the risks they are exposed to. We need to keep girls and women at the centre of the development process, invest in safe technology and keep searching for innovative ways to end gender-based violence, learning and improving as tech evolves.
Gerda Binder, Regional Advisor for Gender Equality and Catherine Poulton, Child Protection