Everywhere we turn, we see individuals engrossed in their smart phone and disconnecting from the world. Blamed for outcomes as diverse as theft, fraud, motor vehicle accidents, and the disintegration of family and intimate relationships, the smart phone and mobile device technology has brought with it a number of challenges.
The potential exists, however, for creating social good, with this very same technology. With the falling prices of smart phones and mobile devices, and with the lowering costs of data services, mobile technology is now reaching remote and underserved populations around the world. This technology has already been used for banking, trade, education and medical services, transforming lives in Lower Income and Middle Income Countries (often referred in development circles as the global “South”). In fact, for the last decade, the South has been the largest market for Information and Communication Technology.
Working at this intersection is Elie Calhoun, designing a project to create a global community of support around vulnerable individuals, through mobile technology.
Calhoun is a public health expert, an aid worker and a US certified rape crisis counsellor. Together with her husband, Nathaniel Calhoun, they run Code Innovation. With expertise in public health, and in delivering mobile apps for education and development in Africa, they “take solutions to problems…and digitise them so they can scale.” Code Innovation was a key player in providing mobile education in West Africa during the recent Ebola epidemic. This education played a part in preventing additional infections and the spread of the virus.
Her current project, a Rape Crisis Counseling App, will be a free mobile version of the training that is provided to certified rape crisis counsellors in the USA. The training will focus on providing an advocate with the tools to assist a person who has been raped, as they navigate receiving the medical care required to prevent pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Working with the 42 year old DC Rape Crisis Centre, the Pittsburg Action Against Rape Coalition and with a team of humanitarian, gender based violence experts, women’s rights defenders and UI/UX specialists, the project will digitise the training to provide mobile access (although not certification) to anyone, anywhere in the world so they can train themselves to act as an advocate and support for a person who has been raped. The app will be translated into several languages to facilitate this, globally.
To set the context of advocacy around rape, a little background is required.
Feminists have variously used the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ to refer to a person who has been raped. Early feminists working in advocacy around the issue used the term ‘victim’ to highlight the criminality of the act and to reinforce that it was not the fault of the one who had been raped. Later, the term ‘survivor’ became popular to recognise the agency of the person who had been raped and to aid in the healing process. Recently, some advocates have reclaimed the term ‘victim,’ especially in the global South, to highlight not only the crime, but the systemic abuse that faces those who have been raped.
Rape is not a women’s issue. Both men and women are vulnerable to rape and sexual assault, although, in the majority of cases it is a woman who has been raped. All of us have a responsibility to prevent rape and sexual violence.
As a global average, 1 in 5 women will experience sexual violence in her adult years. In countries experiencing or that have experienced conflict, this figure can be much higher, with figures of 75% reported in some regions. Rape knows no age limit, and the elderly and children as young as infants are amongst those vulnerable to sexual assault. In England and Wales alone, 85,000 adult women and 12,000 adult men are raped every year.
In Higher Income Countries, (the global “North”), we commonly recognise that rape is a violent crime, although most rapes still go unreported and unprosecuted. In the UK, only about 15% of rapes are reported and, of those that are prosecuted, studies show the conviction rates are lower than other violent crimes, at only 5.7%.
When we consider conflict zones, the systemic failure and abuse is even more horrifying. In the past 20 years alone, countries in both the global North and South have seen rape committed in such a way as to be deemed, by the UN, to have the potential to be a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. This week, a UN report to be published Friday, will provide details of rape, on a massive scale, in South Sudan. The report claims that Pro-Government soldiers are being allowed to rape women, in lieu of being paid wages.
In this context, it is important discuss these issues in language that is both sensitive and representative, so that it does not, through the best of intentions, further traumatise, silence, or oppress anyone who has been raped.
Rape Crisis Counselling App
We caught up via Skype and email with Elie Calhoun, currently in the the field in Indonesia, to talk about her current project and the crowdfunding campaign for it. We asked Calhoun about her approach and choice of the terminology for the app:
“Both terms are extremely valuable. In the context of dealing with the police to gather evidence and report the crime, it’s common to use the term ‘victim’ services. Legal material uses this terminology and to use it helps us to highlight the criminality of rape.
Within the context of rape crisis counselling, we prefer the term ‘survivor’ to recognise that you made it through and you survived and to help minimise self-blame. A specific tactic that rape crisis counselling uses is to acknowledge what the survivor has been through, remembering that in many cases, rape is life threatening.”
Scope of the app
Understanding the scope of the app is also important. Legal advocacy, advocacy around prevention of sexual violence and long term psychological counselling for survivors would be needed, in addition to the critical medical advocacy that this app provides, in order to provide a full spectrum of support services. These are currently outside the scope of the app. And, of course, TTDOG would add that, where rape is systemic, intervention beyond the individual level would be required.
Admitting that this is only one piece of the advocacy puzzle surrounding a rape, Calhoun notes that it is an easy access point which can quickly deliver a discrete set of much-needed and highly impactful information without the complexity of extensive adaptation to cultural and legal context.
Importance of the App to Survivors and Advocates
Calhoun recognizes that while both men and women are vulnerable to rape, she uses the situation of a woman’s rape as a default. She explains that when a woman is raped, she has a limited time period during which she can access medical care that will prevent pregnancy, HIV and other STIs.
“A survivor may not know that she needs these services, or she may know that she needs to go to the doctor but doesn’t know exactly what she needs. The app will…say: ‘Yes, you need to go to the doctor…right away and bring someone with you..”
The app is important because it provides the training for the person that survivor chooses to bring with them, to serve as a volunteer advocate.
“If the survivor gets talked down to, if she’s denied care, if she’s shamed – and there are…cases even in the US where this happens – she may not ask a second time.”
Calhoun explains that if a survivor must advocate for themselves in that situation it is far more challenging. She points to the rape crisis counselling research that she has gathered to support the app development. In the research, survivors share their experiences of the secondary trauma of discrimination received from medical personnel. Rape can leave a devastating sense of powerlessness for anyone. And, given that victim blaming is a commonly reported issue for survivors, an advocate who stands with the survivor and resists discrimination is a valuable support in seeking appropriate medical care.
“That kind of fierce pushiness, within a system, is quite valuable to have someone else do.”
“Rape crisis counselling is…a nexus point…” Calhoun continues. If a survivor is able to access treatment, with the support of an advocate, this is likely to have positive outcomes for healing. Following an assault, a survivor may experience stress, depression and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). And while Calhoun notes that these are natural psychological responses to a violent crime, “to have an advocate say ‘This was wrong, this was not your fault,’ begins to give agency back to the survivor….Of course…rape crisis counselling does not take the place of psychological support services for survivors…”
The Development Context
As outlined in her FAQ, the idea for the app originated when Calhoun came across an article about an aid worker who had been raped whilst in post for an aid agency. Following the rape, she didn’t have access to the information she needed to obtain appropriate medical care and advocacy. As an aid worker herself, Calhoun shares:
“I…felt it in my gut and I felt something had to be done. And of course I knew about the power of mobile technology as an education and advocacy tool.”
Calhoun tested her ideas with the aid worker community, rape survivors, gender-based violence experts and rape crisis counselling centres, gathering a growing coalition of support around the project. Given that the idea for the app came from her experience with aid workers, we asked why the app was important for development:
“I wouldn’t say this is only for developing countries…” Calhoun admits. Survivors exist everywhere in the world and require the same medical care. In terms of human development, sexual violence, she asserts, has a direct impact on women’s contributions to society and family systems. And, of course, it is important, Calhoun reiterates, to work to prevent sexual violence and violence in general.
What If Services Aren’t Available in a Country?
Calhoun admits that in many places, it can be a challenge to find adequate care for rape survivors. Existing rape crisis counselling material “assumes you’re in an industrialised country” and that the medical care is adequate. However, the app aims to reach people in environments where the medical context may be very different.
Calhoun asserts that creating awareness for “the survivor and her advocate to know that some piece of the care she needs is missing doesn’t solve…the health system’s inadequacy for that person in that moment. But, it does give her the information she needs…” Having this information, Calhoun says, allows a survivor to make the best choice, in the context.
Where a part of the medical care is missing, Calhoun notes that this is an advocacy opportunity. Having these resources, she asserts, is an important part of primary health care services and they should be “available without red tape or moralising.”
In adapting material originally designed for use in Higher Income Countries, there is always the risk of failing to represent the needs of those in other socio-economic, political, cultural and religious contexts. We asked Calhoun about the mix of her coalition, and particularly, whether the perspectives of the global South and of rape survivors would be represented in the development and testing process.
Calhoun confirmed that her team was diverse and included women’s right defenders and non-profit organisations from different countries to ensure that the app is “a resource that is applicable in different cultural settings and in different medical contexts…” and where there are “different levels or resources.”
“We’re…keen to have more women’s rights groups and anti-violence organisations from around the world join us so that we can…expand…our reach.”
During the interview, we discussed ways in which rape survivors would be represented in the development and testing process. Subsequently, Calhoun edited her response to offer only a confirmation of representation of rape survivors.
Reaching Rape Survivors
To reach rape survivors, Calhoun and her coalition will take a three-pronged approach. Firstly, the app will be promoted within aid organisations to create awareness about what the app is, that it is freely available, and that the material is in the Creative Commons. At the same time, the team hopes to receive media coverage of the launch of the app.
Secondly, the app will have a dedicated microsite that will point to the resource. And, finally, the team will use common app developer strategies to make both the app searchable and findable through the app stores and app microsite. These strategies include good Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and keyword matches for phrases a rape survivor might use to search for resources.
Initially, the app would, realistically, only be available to upper-middle income individuals who are able to afford a smart phone, but with the falling costs of technology, Calhoun is confident that the reach will widen, with time.
We asked if there was a plan to approach Ministries of Gender in various countries, where populations might be difficult to reach. Calhoun states they do not plan to do so directly, although they do hope that various organisations will trial and adopt the resource as a tool for responding to gender-based violence and sexual assault.
“We see crowdfunding as an opportunity….
Because sexual violence, and particularly rape, is something that affects everyone, we want to use the campaign…to create a community of support. First, to raise awareness around the issue…Even if someone gives $1,…they agree that this is an important enough project to give their resources to…if they share about it on social media it’s important enough to lend their social capital to…”
Ensuring that rape crisis counselling is available to everyone who needs it, via the mobile app, is what Calhoun describes as “our own small part of trying to solve the larger issue of sexual violence.”
Calhoun adds that funding the app by people’s contributions from around the world makes an important statement of support and solidarity. She goes on to say that when we hear about rape, “we feel powerless…like there’s nothing we can do.” In this context, giving people the opportunity to participate in the creation of this app is, to Calhoun, worth the risk of not achieving full crowdfunding.
“Anyone, anywhere, can…stand with us…to support rape survivors.”
For more information or to support #RapeCrisisCounseling, see the campaign materials, here.
As is our practice at TTDOG, we asked Calhoun: For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?
“I am most grateful to be alive on the planet at this time.
It is a time of extraordinary change and also great challenges…
And what gives me joy?
To be able to take a fleeting vision…and to be able to sit with it..and let it ground
and then to be able to mobilise and attract people..who will…
bring something into the world and community.
There is joy and awareness in feeling the vulnerability
and the messiness and the unknowing of it all.”