William Robert Avis
Publication Date
July 20, 2017

Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC)

What are the most effective tools developed for digital platforms (social media, mobile phone apps and websites) that have been successful in changing behaviour in relation to violence against women?

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) affects on average one-third of all women in their lifetime. This report provides an overview of academic, policy, and practitioner literature that examines the extent to which digital tools can facilitate behaviour change in relation to this pervasive problem. On the one hand, technology has the potential to play a key role in transforming gender inequality and unequal social relations; on the other, it may encourage new forms of violence against women. This is the first report of a two-part Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) query; GSDRC indicates that they should be read in conjunction (see Related Summaries, below.)

As William Robert Avis explains, a violent behaviour can be said to "held in place by social norms" when there are shared beliefs that the violent behaviour is both typical and appropriate, and consequent expectations in a "reference group" that the behaviour will be adhered to. When designing initiatives to tackle VAWG and effect behaviour change, he argues it is important to recognise the interlocking factors that prevent change from happening, including:

  • Structural forces, such as conflict, weak or discriminatory legal and institutional frameworks, racism, rules about who can own and inherit property, and gender ideologies that underpin gendered differences in power;
  • Social factors, such as harmful social and gender norms;
  • Material realities, such as household poverty and lack of economic opportunities for women and girls and weak infrastructure; and
  • Individual factors, such as inequitable gender attitudes condoning VAWG and mistaken factual beliefs, as well as women's agency, aspirations, and self-efficacy.

Two figures in the report highlight: the elements of the "social ecology" that may interact to drive and sustain harmful behaviours; and the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW), which was developed from 19 frameworks of behaviour change identified in a systematic literature review. The report also examines FHI 360's socio-ecological lens, designed to illustrate the complex interplay between individual, interpersonal, community, and societal factors that affect behaviours. As Avis notes, the translation of theoretical methods to specific contexts, populations, and cultures is often challenging.

Evidence and insights from practitioners suggest that in order to shift harmful social norms, programmes need to: shift social expectations (not just individual attitudes), publicise the change, and catalyse and reinforce new norms and behaviours. Mass media can focus attention on issues, generating public awareness and momentum for change. "Agenda dynamics" refer to the relationship between media agenda (what is covered), public agenda (what people think about), and policy agenda (regulatory or legislative actions on issues). In fact, a range of media strategies - from mass media to less conventional community and participatory media approaches, and including mobile- and internet-technology-based approaches - have proven effective in disseminating information, rallying support, and sparking dialogue that can challenge gender norms around VAWG.

Avis explores in some detail digital platforms, behaviour change, and VAWG - looking specifically at: social media, online social networks (e.g., webpages), and text messaging. Such information and communication technology (ICT) approaches combine a number of different objectives, from mapping violence to gathering data, using data gathered to advocate for change, and providing survivors with access to information and support. ICTs are also being used to access support from a community of peers, raise awareness of the violence faced by women and girls amongst their families and communities, use entertainment and social media forums, and monitor and evaluate interventions and measure their impact.

Avis' review of the literature reveals that digital campaigns are more successful when they:

  • Include messages about legal penalties for non-compliant behaviour, fresh information (e.g., a new recommended behaviour to solve a health problem), and reach a large proportion of the intended audience. Laws and policies that make violent behaviour an offence send a message to society that it is not acceptable.
  • Tailor messages to audiences using social marketing principles and creating a supportive environment that enables the intended audience to make changes - e.g., by mobilising communities in support of the campaign.
  • Use research, such as interviews with key stakeholders and focus groups with members of the intended audience, to determine existing attitudes and beliefs and ways of motivating people to change their behaviour.
  • Pre-test campaign messages among intended audiences to ensure they are understood correctly and to minimise any unintended negative effects on other audiences.
  • Involve work with experienced organisations to develop and deliver sophisticated television/radio programming and communications combined with community mobilisation strategies aimed at changing gender-related norms and behaviours.

That said, a number of challenges persist in deploying digital tools to address VAWG and effect behaviour change. Principle among these, as GSMA data show, is access constraints related to internet and or mobile phone access. Unequal access is particularly high amongst marginalised groups, and economically poor women in particular still face significant barriers in access to ICTs. Additional challenges are related to infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness, and content.

The report goes on to provide a number of case studies that illustrate how interventions that challenge cultural and social norms supportive of violence - including those with digital components - can help reduce and prevent violent behaviour. The case studies, which include evaluation results and lessons learned, focus on:

  • Bell Bajao (Breakthrough, India) - included a series of public service announcements (PSAs) that show men and boys ringing the doorbells of other community members to interrupt domestic violence. The campaign reached 130 million people.
  • Must Bol (Community the Youth Collective, India) - involved participants creating content (e.g., around the question: Do you prefer care verses control in your relationship?) that is easy to share online, including short fictional videos, photos, posters, and blogs. The video blog and the YouTube channel had 57,000 views and a membership of 22,000.
  • 17 Man (Eastern Campus, China) - one of the six activities designed for university students: Every two months, the campaign website held contests to invite articles from the public on a selected topic; the best articles were judged by an expert group, and the winner received a United Nations (UN) certificate. The campaign achievements included 57,000 followers or campaign contestants on various online platforms (Sina, Sohu, the campaign website, Renren, and Weibo).
  • Love Journey (Viet Nam) - included a photo competition held on a custom-built campaign platform that was integrated into an existing online newspaper and that engaged celebrities to participate. The campaign resulted in more than 94,261 visitors to the competition website, more than 1,900 young people joined the Facebook page, and more than 190 young people joined the volunteers' network for primary prevention of VAWG.
  • Media Matters for Women, or MMW (Sierra Leone) - began with the training of three local professional female journalists in the use of and equipped with a Mobile Production Unit (MPU), including equipment such as an ipad, microphone, headphones, a digital camera, and a mobile phone with bluetooth. They were then tasked with producing a weekly ten-minute radio programme in local languages on a topic that affects women. An unexpected result of the programme was that listeners began to transfer the audio files onto their own cell phones so they could listen to them at home. They subsequently reported transferring the files via Bluetooth to their friends and family.
  • Equal Access (Nepal) - involves a weekly radio programme called Samajhdari that provides information and facilitates discussion on issues relating to VAWG and HIV. The radio programme has gained a regular listening audience of over one million since its launch in 2008, being broadcast by 16 local FM stations and Radio Nepal. Sample finding: a 14% increase from baseline to endline in numbers of respondents indicating that forceful sex with a woman (including your wife) is a crime.

Summary of recommendations from the case studies:

  1. Partner, directly or indirectly, with women's rights organisations (WROs) that have a strong understanding of the local context, the capacity to mobilise communities, and knowledge of local authorities and structures.
  2. Ensure women's human rights and empowerment are guiding principles of any VAWG intervention. Examples in this guidance include: empowering women survivors to advocate for their rights, provide legal advice to women experiencing violence, use social media to tell their own stories, and lead social change as community activists.
  3. Engage with the whole community, including men and boys, and traditional leaders, who can be influential allies. Violence must be seen as a community issue rather than a private matter or a "women's issue".
  4. Develop and implement programmes to engage men and boys in partnership with WROs and monitor these programmes to ensure they remain women-centred.
  5. Integrate prevention and response within interventions, framing service interventions as an entry-point for advocacy and community mobilisation.
  6. Develop multi-component interventions - for example, combining group/peer education with community mobilisation, advocacy, and media work.
  7. Use multi-sector approaches at the community level.
  8. Connect community-based interventions and women's groups with national- and regional-level WROs and networks, and link community activism and advocacy with national and international frameworks on VAWG and women's rights.
  9. Explicitly challenge discriminatory gender norms (values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, and practices) through approaches that stimulate personal and collective reflection and critical thinking, and inspire informal community activism where change is led by community members.
  10. Build girls' and women's social assets and safety nets - for example, through the provision of girl- and women-only safe spaces that provide social support and skills training, raise self-esteem, and help cope with crisis.
  11. Strengthen informal community support networks, including by building the capacities of women leaders and WROs to develop support and referral networks for women experiencing violence.
  12. Build women's resources, assets, and agency through interventions to increase women's education and skills, build their leadership and voice, and increase their access to decent jobs and control over economic assets.
  13. Put in place strategies to protect women's safety and ensure that basic ethics regarding confidentiality is included as a minimum standard in all interventions.
  14. Ensure programmes are tailored to meet the needs of women of different ages, marital status, disability, social class, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other identities.
  15. Make a long-term commitment and ensure there is a sustained presence in the community and provide long-term core funding and organisational capacity-building for WROs.

Prepared for the Australian Government, this report comes from the GSDRC Research Helpdesk, which provides rapid syntheses of key literature and of expert thinking in response to specific questions on governance, social development, humanitarian, and conflict issues.


GSDRC website, September 7 2017. Image caption/credit: "In Argentina, the hashtag #NiUnaMenos (not one less) was coined to reject femicides that go unpunished in the country" - Agence France-Presse (AFP) via