William Robert Avis
Publication Date
July 28, 2017

Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC)

"The literature on (non-digital and digital) ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) and women and girls' empowerment is relatively large, but most studies focus on women's economic empowerment, and these rarely draw connections between women's economic power and their voice and influence in society or politics, or initiatives to improve women's safety and access to domestic and family violence support services."

This rapid help desk review provides an overview of academic, policy, and practitioner literature that examines the extent to which digital tools can improve women's safety and access to domestic and family violence support services. One of author William Robert Avis's central claims is that there is a dearth of evidence into how, when, and why information technologies (including a range of digital tools - e.g., social media, mobile phone apps and websites) act as tools for transforming women's lives and as an enabler for empowerment. The majority of studies assume, implicitly or explicitly, that ICTs afford women and girls more opportunities to participate in public affairs, access information, and form advocacy networks. Such claims need further interrogation, says Avis. This is the second 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.)

The literature indicates that technology can be used to mitigate gender-based violence (GBV) and improve women's safety in a number of ways. For instance, electronic monitoring systems are allowing violence-prone areas to be identified, short message service (SMS) alert systems can inform advocates of abuse, and information sharing sites and social networking service (SNS) and SMS-based support groups are all potential avenues where technology can support survivors of violence. However, in many contexts, barriers (e.g., due to illiteracy) hinder women and girls from accessing digital tools. Avis reports that radio is frequently highlighted as an avenue for women's voices that may be more accessible than newer technologies. However, Torenli (2006) points out that "an increase in links, connections and bandwidth does not equate with an increase in information, communication and activity. Whilst content on the web is useful, until poorer women are able to use ICTs, they are of limited use for mobilising a broad spectrum of women to campaign on women's issues or to provide access to support services." Furthermore, a number of commentators note that digital tools and ICTs more broadly can be used by abusers to deepen their control, and mobile phones can be tools for harassment, threats, and stalking. Regressive and patriarchal groups can use digital ICTs as a tool to subordinate women, and women and girls may also face increased risk of control and violence when they use digital ICTs.

The following case studies have been highlighted as have having some success in improving the safety of women or enhancing access to support services. These include country- specific examples, international campaigns, and initiatives that have used popular media to convey messages regarding violence against women and girls (VAWG). "It is important to note that much of this 'success' is anecdotal and requires further interrogation and triangulation with other research."

  • This is Abuse/Disrespect Nobody Campaigns: Home Office (UK) - All campaign activity signposts the "This is Abuse" website as a place for teenagers to get further information on what abusive behaviours are, and to help them understand the myths around abuse and rape. Professionals who work directly with teenagers have an important role in extending the reach of the campaign. By providing them with support materials, which included posters, postcards, and a DVD of the campaign adverts, the campaign extended its reach by giving them tools to start to facilitate these discussions. The campaign has also galvanised partners to use the outdoor and TV adverts to run their own localised campaigns.
  • 3-2-1 Service: HNI and Airtel (Madagascar) - The story of one female interviewee in particular illustrates how the service can have a powerful impact on social norms. When Georgette, a victim of domestic violence who was unaware of her rights or GBV resources, discovered the 3-2-1 gender empowerment content, she borrowed her sister-in-law's mobile handset (her husband had previously destroyed hers) and made her husband listen to it. She now feels there has been a change in his behaviour towards her.
  • Hello Sakhi: Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan & Mahila Police Cell of Gujarat Police (India) - a telephone hotline that provides immediate response to cases of domestic violence.
  • Fightback: Tech Mahindra (India) - a mobile-based application (app) that allows the user to press on a panic button whenever she feels unsafe.
  • Little Sisters project: Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action and UNDP and the Vodafone Foundation (India) - 160 local women called Sangini who have been trained to identify and report incidents of gender violence using Android smartphones.
  • Safe Nodia: Social and Development Research and Action Group (India) - an app that spreads awareness on laws, rights, and provisions provided by the government on violence against women that also provide young people with an interactive platform to share their experiences and concerns.
  • Take back the Tech!: Association for Progressive Communication (International) - a diverse movement of individuals, organisations, collectives, and communities resulting in initiatives such as one project that shares information and survivor stories through the compilation of YouTube videos.
  • Addressing VAWG through popular culture - Popular television programming in the United Kingdom (UK) has a record of portraying violence against women and girls and seeking expert advice on these storylines.

Some programme features emerge as common across case studies. These include:

  • Integrated and cross-platform approaches - directly involving specialist support services are directly involved in the design, provision of information, and/or facilitation of online discussion.
  • Engagement with specialist local partners (as well as national partners) by making campaign materials and information free or low cost.
  • Linked online and offline activities - for example, using digital support services to connect women who are vulnerable to, or experiencing, violence with counsellors or support staff.
  • Assessment of which medium is most appropriate to which intended audience.

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 8 2017. Image credit: Take Back the Tech!/Pauline Rosen-Cros