SMS SOS: Reporting Gender-Based Violence in Haiti

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Oct 14, 2010

Since the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, thousands of internally displaced persons are living in camps, where it is often not easy to report incidences of violence. An ongoing project from Survivors Connect uses mobile phones to support camp managers and community leaders to protect women and encourage people to report incidences. The project, called Ayiti SMS SOS — Ayiti comes from the Creole word for Haiti — allows individuals to submit reports via SMS.

Survivors Connect is an organization that works to enhance anti-trafficking movements around the world through the use of new media and connective technology. Survivors Connect partners with grassroots organizations to incorporate new technology to help improve on-the-ground efforts toward protection, prosecution, and prevention.

One of the 100 donated, solar power phones from Digicel in Haiti.

How Did Ayiti SMS SOS Come About?

Project Ayiti SMS SOS integrates Frontline SMS and Ushahidi to create a human rights observatory and helpline. Survivors Connect partners with grassroots organizations in Haiti, primarily Fondation Espoir, and focuses on issues of gender-based violence, human trafficking, and exploitation of children. The project launched in March and is ongoing.

Aashika Damodar, the founder of Survivors Connect, said that her own travels and experiences helped her to realize the potential of mobiles in development. “Even in the most remote corners of the world where I couldn’t access the Internet, I at least had a mobile signal. And so did everyone else,” she said. This included rural villages that tended to be source areas for victims of human trafficking.

Damodar started to wonder, “Are there ways that we could be using this mobile technology to create greater channels of connectivity between city-based resources and rural communities that are vulnerable to trafficking?”

Since the earthquake, organizations and individuals have told Survivors Connect about increased instances of violence against women and children, Damodar said. “Furthermore, given that there is no central reporting system for cases of violence, our project is basically utilizing the grassroots energy and movement to support camp managers and community leaders to protect women and children.”

How it Works: From SMS Message to Referral and Response

Digicel, a mobile operator in Haiti, helped Survivors Connect set up an easy-to-remember “golden number,” 38-030303. Anyone can text any incidence of violence to this number. Instances are not narrowed to issues of human trafficking. Any instance of violence, including exploitation, rape, sexual assault, or child abuse, can be reported because in many cases, these instances can evolve into human trafficking, Damodar said, and to narrow it would be a disservice to other victims of violence in the country.

The SMS interface was chosen for several reasons. “SMS is a better platform for starting communication on sensitive issues,” Damodar said. And compared with voice-based messaging services, “it’s far more discreet and cheaper.”

Because of the character limit, a text message may not provide enough information, and Damodar said there are various ways to respond to messages to collect more details. Sometimes, the group will respond via SMS asking “are you in a safe place to communicate” and “can we call?” In some cases, the group will take the conversation offline and meet the person in office or at the camp. “It completely depends on the nature of the case,” Damodar said.

On the back end, Fondation Espoir operates a “rudimentary” referral and response network. Depending on the case and the nature of the text message, the group will refer the case to an agency in the Survivors Connect network (such as the IRC for a message about a missing person). The referral is made after enough information is collected from the initial SMS message.

This is where Ushahidi, a platform for map and time-based visualizations of text reports, comes in. Reports are plotted on the map only after this referral and response stage is complete.The Ushaidhi platform serves as a public place to monitor the number of instances of violence in targeted areas where the number has been promoted. Survivors Connect was initially hesitant to use any public mapping of the project, fearing it would jeopardize confidentiality but was persuaded to use the Ushahidi platform in the end.

Ayiti SMS SOS has received close to 250 messages since the launch of the project in March. The majority of reports are of gender-based violence. Of the 250 SMS reports, all were responded to, Damodar said.

Challenges to the Process

One inherent challenge to the Ayiti SMS SOS project is the sensitive nature of the reports, which has an impact on how certain technologies are used.

For example, not all reports are plotted on the Ushahidi platform. In fact, the Ushahidi interface was not included as part of the initial launch; it was only the SMS helpline. “Ushahidi is just our face for the project, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot besides where the distribution is of the instances,” Damodar said.

To remedy this, the group omits names and critical information and just summarizes instances.

The extent to which Digicel, the largest mobile provider in Haiti, was able to support the project was limited, Damodar said. Digicel donated 100 solar-powered mobile phones for the trainees and network partners and also established the 38-030303 number. But, Damodar said they could not fully subsidize the cost of SMS messages.

Currently it costs it costs individuals 1 gourde, the standard SMS rate in Haiti, to report an incident of violence through Ayiti SMS SOS.

Aashika Damodar of Survivors Connect at an outreach discussion for Ayiti SMS SOS.

Building Trust is an Important Step

Ayiti SMS SOS involves an offline, user-centric approach to help build trust in the SMS system. Because of slow recovery and assistance and continued disarray in Haiti, there is a large degree of mistrust of the international NGOs in the country, Damodar said.

For this reason, the 38-030303 number is not mass publicized in the country. “We’re not trying to replace any major national hotline,” Damodar said. Instead, Survivors Connect and its partners integrate offline tactics, including discussion groups, seminars, peer-to-peer groups for women, and incorporation into educational curriculum.

Gender-based violence is a serious issue and people are not willing to talk about it to begin with, Damodar said. Thus, introducing the issues in culturally and socially sensitive ways is important. At the discussion groups, leaders ask questions and play games to help alleviate some of the tension around talking about sensitive issues.

The SMS number is introduced only after this so that users know it is a safe space to report and in doing so, it helps build trust. “Those who have heard of the line, know who it is that is going to answer. It’s not a stranger,” Damodar said.

Building trust “will be one of the things that we always keep in mind before we scale up,” Damodar said.

To help raise funds, Survivors Connect is currently competing for an award from the The French American Charitable Trust (FACT) Social Justice Awards. The FACT Challenge seeks to surface innovative projects that leverage web or mobile technology and foster collaboration around social justice issues.

With more funding, future plans to scale include outreach to IDP camps within two additional districts in Haiti.

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