Photo for illustration purposes only. The use of digital tools such as instant messaging apps, is helping to reach the most vulnerable women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A potential increase in cases of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic has called for innovative communication channels to reach the most vulnerable women and girls, in a country where one in three women suffer violence during their lives.
The story of Beatriz*, a 47-year-old survivor of domestic abuse, is a good example of how civil society organizations supported by the European Union-funded Spotlight Initiative in Mozambique are using instant messaging apps to engage with women and girls when they need it most.
"To my husband, I am useless. I cannot voice my opinions. He takes my entire salary to spend as he pleases. He is domineering, he despises and humiliates me. This hurts too much. Please help me!"
This was a distressed message sent by Beatriz to a group in an instant messaging app. The group was created by Kutenga, a Spotlight Initiative-funded organization, as a follow up to a training session on gender-based violence prevention in which Beatriz took part.
In this group, which works as a discussion forum, different topics related to gender-based violence are raised every few weeks. Prompted by the topics, participants discuss and share experiences.
When the topic of "toxic masculinity" was raised, Beatriz immediately related to it and decided to type about her ordeal.
Engaging with survivors
As soon as Kutenga activists received her message, they understood the oppressive conditions in which Beatriz was living. They contacted her privately and when COVID-19 prevention restrictions were eased, they visited Beatriz at her home. They discussed ways for Beatriz to approach her husband and tried to invite him to attend a training session just for men.
He did not accept the invitation but agreed to a phone call. During the call, activists used tailored language to talk about sensitive topics such as gender equality, laws, gender-based violence and the many forms it can take - concepts that Beatriz' husband heard for the first time. They also helped him understand that the Government of Mozambique as well as local authorities in his area are working to eliminate violence against women and girls and to change discriminatory behaviour rooted in toxic masculinity.
The call ended on a good note and little by little, his attitude started to change.
"I was willing to leave him. But it seems that your intervention has changed him. He has stopped being abusive and now even apologizes if he raises his voice. But I will let you know if this changes again," wrote Beatriz in another message.
Communicating through an instant messaging app has had a powerful effect in Beatriz's life. But it has helped many more women and girls feel safe and connected, especially during the pandemic.
For instance, when schools closed, Spotlight Initiative civil society partners created WhatsApp groups to ensure that students stayed connected, informed and vigilant about vulnerable girls and young women at risk of experiencing violence. They identified focal points among the students who refer cases to civil society organizations and response services.
While instant messaging does not replace official communications or statements by government institutions, it is a sustainable and flexible tool to speed up and coordinate responses to reported cases of violence. All users agree and abide by codes of conduct to protect confidentiality of the information shared.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Spotlight Initiative partners have reached more than 1 million people, over 500,000 of whom were women and girls, through community radios, national TV and radio stations, the use of megaphones and instant messaging tools. This is part of the government-led effort to ensure that during the pandemic, women and girls have access to life-saving information, support and services, leaving no one behind.
As for Beatriz, she has recovered control of her life and gained confidence to negotiate more equality within her relationship. Beatriz is now empowered with knowledge and, just as importantly, she is no longer alone: she knows she can quickly message Kutenga if she ever needs help again.
*name was changed
By Leonor Costa Neves with reporting by Aníbal Cossa