5 April 2018

Africa: myPlan - Are Certain Apps Feasible in the African Context?

myPlan, an app that provides a personalised safety plan, connecting women in abusive relationships to local helplines, shelters and counsellors without being "judged or stigmatised", will be available in some African countries next year. Whether the app will address the issues on the ground or simply replicate a Western model will determine its success.

A smartphone app named "myPlan", developed by researchers at the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, is helping women both to identify if they are in an abusive relationship and to leave safely. The app, which has about 10 000 users in the United States and versions in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, will be launched in some African countries next year, its developer said.

The app asks women a series of questions about their situation. Then, with input from professionals via a live chat function, it shows women how to consider possible choices for action, developing a tailored safety plan, then linking her to local resources like helplines, shelters and counsellors.

While there are countless smartphone applications on women's safety, most focus on imminent emergencies, facilitating actions like alerting a friend or family member when in danger.

Dr Nancy Glass, the professor heading the myPlan project, said myPlan is "a safety decision tool" to help women learn about healthy relationships, recognise any "red flags" in their own relationship and assess the risk of repeated and severe violence.

"For example, ask yourself whether the abuse has increased in frequency over the past year, or if your partner has threatened to kill you," she said.

Glass said she has received positive feedback since launching in 2016. This, coupled with the information gap on partner violence in Africa, is the motivation behind the expansion first into Kenya, and then Ghana and Somalia.

"I have worked in multiple African countries on violence prevention and response programmes and have seen many of the same challenges for women and girls when it comes to accessing resources and safety," said Glass.

"The feedback from users is mostly that myPlan is helpful in understanding whether their relationship is not healthy and the need to reach out to services in their community. We have even had some women tell us that using the app has saved their lives."

Her team is working with charities, survivors and university students to better understand the local context in the countries they aim to venture into.

About 30% of women globally experience physical or sexual violence from their partner, says the World Health Organization (WHO). In Kenya, the percentage is higher, with almost 40% of women having been beaten or sexually assaulted by their partners, according to UN Women.

The Kenyan version of the app, which will be translated into Kiswahili, is expected to be launched in 2019.

"We are writing for funding and working to gather support, but we want to make sure that it is based on evidence from the community and supports the needs of the women and girls and increases safety before making it public for use," said Glass.

Will it work?

Although the motivation behind the app is admirable, feasibility may be lacking. The resources that the app promises to connect survivors to are severely limited. Although there are some facilities and organisations in Kenya's main cities that would be in a position to provide help, there are certainly close to none in the counties.

Research shows that a woman will leave an abusive home eight to 10 times before leaving permanently or dying as the result of injuries incurred from a violent incident. There are various reasons for this back and forth, including societal stigma, economic dependency, isolation or pressure from friends and family. It is therefore important that the resources available to survivors should be economically and socially empowering to help these women in a sustainable way. The lack of such resources and facilities are likely to hinder the success of the app or make it only partially effective.

All is not lost, however. Following the signing into law of the Protection against Domestic Violence Act in 2015, Kenyan women can now better protect themselves and seek justice against abusers. The Act acknowledges numerous types of violence, including verbal abuse, harassment, sexual violence in a marriage, incest, intimidation, stalking, emotional and physical abuse, and even traditional activities like the so-called "cleansing" of widows and forced wife inheritance. It protects victims from economic abuse, for example being prevented from seeking employment. There is an "easy" application process for protection orders, which will prevent the abuser from contacting the victim. If an abuser has been served a protection order and was given an explanation of the reasons for it, and they then breach it, they will have committed an offence that attracts a fine of Kshs. 100 000, or imprisonment for not more than 12 months, or, if the judge sees fit, both. The Act also makes provision for when the victim can no longer live with the abuser, forcing the latter to foot any costs incurred while the victim sets up anew.

If myPlan focuses on helping women identity abuse and then linking them with resources that provide education on the tools that are provided under the law, then the project may be feasible and beneficial to the target group. However, if they follow a model that fails to recognise the deficiencies on the ground, the app will likely not be useful to those it seeks to help.

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