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Syrian women interacting with a SenseMaker survey Photo credit: Colleen Davison

On 25 November, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence (GBV) begin with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To mark this, our Innovation Manager, Ian Brightwell, examines how, in humanitarian settings as elsewhere, the gender inequalities that perpetuate GBV are replicated in new technologies and how innovators are searching for safe ways to use technology to better support survivors.   

“Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women.” So states the UN resolution designating an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The date commemorates the three Mirabal sisters – long-persecuted political activists in the Dominican Republic – who were brutally assassinated on 25 November 1960.   

Decades later, unequal power relations still feed into violence aimed at silencing women who speak out. Female victims of assassination include strident civil society leaders like the Mirabal sisters, as well as elected politicians and environmental activists. Character assassination is another part of the barrage of gendered violence that women human rights defenders report experiencing, together with threats, blackmail and extortion, defamation, stigmatisation and smear campaigns, typically exacerbated by women’s unequal place in societies around the world.   

“To harness the positives of technology – especially for sensitive issues like GBV – innovators should ensure that protection principles like do-no-harm trump the disruptive desire to move fast and break things.”

New technologies and the burgeoning cyberworld proliferate spaces in which old harms find new forms. Meanwhile, to harness the positives of technology – especially for sensitive issues like GBV – innovators should ensure that protection principles like do-no-harm trump the disruptive desire to move fast and break things.   

As part of Elrha’s engagement in the 16 Days of Activism, I will be attending the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative conference, where I’ll advocate for the safe adoption of Elrha-supported tech-based innovations that are mentioned below. While doing so, I’ll be drawing on recent work led by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that highlights the problem of technology-facilitated GBV and calls for safe design principles to underpin how we use technology to combat GBV.   

Tech-facilitated Gender-based violence (TFGBV)

The 21st century is bursting with world-changing new technologies. Social media is transforming communications, and digital advances make readily available the sort of tracking, monitoring, hacking, filming and faking that until recently seemed unimaginable.   

Despite the transformative nature of new media, historical gendered inequalities persist. Old forms of violence against women – threats, defamation, smear campaigns – now find new platforms that greatly accelerate their pace and amplify their reach.   

Last year, in Making All Spaces Safe, UNFPA highlighted TFGBV as a global concern, prevalent in all societies. The report identifies diverse forms of TFGBV, such as online harassment, doxing (the non-consensual disclosure of personal information), image-based abuse (including image manipulation and non-consensual publication), surveillance and cyberstalking, and the limiting or controlling use of technology.      

The humanitarian angle

Global guidance states that “all humanitarian personnel ought to assume GBV is occurring and threatening affected populations.” And human rights observers note that conflicts and situations of instability exacerbate pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls.   

Considering that TFGBV is a global concern, and that GBV is present in every crisis, there’s a pressing need for humanitarian actors to comprehend how TFGBV manifests in humanitarian settings.   

“The message on GBV prevalence during humanitarian crises is clear: assume that GBV is taking place.”

Sure, not every women’s safe space has a Facebook page, and from one context to another there is a wide range of access to digital technology. But among lower income countries, for example, in Somalia back in 2017, roughly three-quarters of over-16s were using mobile phones for money transfers, while a 2019 study in two refugee camps in Uganda, found that a third of refugees had had some access to the internet. Wars, disasters and displacement across middle income countries like Ukraine and Pakistan, and protracted emergencies in the Middle East and South America, seem likely to contribute to even higher numbers of tech users among people affected by crisis.   

Fighting back: technology-facilitated prevention and responses to GBV

Innovation doesn’t have be related to technology. At Elrha, we have supported evidence-based low-tech innovations like using music therapy with survivors of GBV, and GBV prevention activities shaped around cultural practices such as tea and coffee drinking. However, we’re also funding humanitarian innovation that uses new technology to combat GBV.  

In the Venezuela response, sensemaking software automates and enriches elements of a mixed methods GBV data-gathering process. In Uganda, SH+360 is being trialled as an adaptation of the Self-help Plus (SH+) method of tech-assisted psychosocial support. And in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, MediCapt serves as a digitised intake form (accompanied by training for clinicians) to improve the forensic documentation of GBV. 

As we pioneer the use of tech to address GBV we recognise that with new opportunities come new risks: for example, gathering and storing masses of data has the potential for doing masses of harm. While Elrha has guidance on ethical considerations for humanitarian innovation, there’s scope for specific guidance on how innovations in technology are brought into the complex and highly sensitive realm of action on GBV.  

At this year’s Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) Forum, I attended the launch of UNFPA’s draft guidance on using technology to address GBV. This undertaking responds to the need for a framework of shared principles and practices that was highlighted by the global GBV helpdesk in their analysis of lessons learnt. 

UNFPA’s framework coherently builds up from protection principles such as do-no-harm and the survivor-centred approach and adds specifically tech-relevant considerations like safety-by-design. Of course, drafting guidance is only half the work. Once published, we’ll all need to ensure that principles are assimilated and that standards are upheld. 

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