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by Rosie Spinks
In war-torn zones around the world, the spotlight is often directed primarily on the conflict occurring, with less attention paid to the crimes and complications that crop up in the wake of collapsing infrastructure or an absent centralized body of power. Sexual violence is one such overwhelming problem in conflict areas, with millions of victims frequently left with nowhere and no one to turn to, and the perpetrators left unpunished.
A newly conceived-of platform, dubbed The Promise, aims to offer help and safe haven for these people, serving as a direct communication channel between the victims and nongovernmental organization workers in conflict zones. An individual in crisis who sends a text message to or dials the hotline number from a basic mobile phone is able to reach a local NGO worker on the ground and generate an open “case.” From there, the worker can securely call or text the individual back to receive their location and other specifics before locating the nearest shelter using The Promise’s online database. A confidential brief is then sent to the shelter to prep those on-site before the victim’s arrival.
The team behind The Promise was participating in a three-day “diplo-hack” last month as part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-hosted by U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and U.N. Special Envoy Angelina Jolie. The event brought together diplomats and hackers to create real-world technological solutions to tackle this pressing crisis.
“Not only is sexual violence highly under-reported, but it is also so harrowing that most people find it uncomfortable to talk about it,” said Hera Hussain, event emcee and founder of Chayn, a volunteer-led startup that aims to empower women in the developing world, and one of the hackathon’s sponsors.
One of the largest challenges faced by all six participating teams was that they couldn’t rely on a working internet connection and access to smartphones, as both might be hard to come by in these conflict regions. In particular, women are often subjected to stricter technologic limitations in these areas.
The Promise’s team zeroed in on Syria as its target audience, whose country profile includes high literacy rates among women, high mobile phone ownership (up to 60 to 70 percent of the population), and strong telecoms coverage, yet it wasn’t without its own hurdles.
“There were a lot of challenges with choosing Syria because the government runs all the telecoms companies, so all the data and communications can be blocked,” said Rosie Salter, a team member and a politics and international relations graduate student. “Obviously, in Syria, it’s also quite difficult to advertise and publicize things because you want to keep the phone line secure. We thought about advertising via pirate radio stations or Western radio stations—which aren’t controlled by the government but are listened to widely—which would tell people the number is available if you go to an NGO or aid worker.”
Alan Thomson, a developer and tech entrepreneur who also contributed to The Promise, said that though the team members took inspiration from Ushahidi, the successful crisis-mapping platform created in Kenya, they were confident that their idea was unique, scalable, and simple enough to be applied in other conflict regions.
“We know the problem exists: People are looking for shelters, and there are shelters, and those people aren’t connected well,” Thomson said. “Syria was a good place to start because of the literacy and telecom strength. But mobile telecoms in Africa is also a really big deal—the coverage there is surprisingly good—so we think we could scale out there next.”
As the victor, The Promise team received modest funding to begin putting its idea into action (though they’re seeking additional aid), as well as guidance and support from both the Dutch and Swedish embassies, and from the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The team knows its crusade against sexual violence doesn’t end here though, and members stress the importance of connecting to those who will be directly benefiting from the platform.
“What’s most important at this stage is getting to speak to our users, because if we build something we think they need, we’ll probably make incorrect assumptions,” Thomson said. “We’re hoping through [the Embassies’] networks that we’re going to be able to talk to the right people and drive the project in the right direction. The important thing is knowing what we have to build.”
Photo courtesy The Netherlands Embassy in London.
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