South Africa is currently recognising 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. The global campaign aims to galvanise action to end violence against women and girls, using the hashtag #HearMeToo. South Africans will unite under the theme #CountMeIn, which encourages members of society, especially men, to speak out against abuse and to work together to curb domestic violence.
The December holiday season traditionally sees an increase in the number of domestic violence incidents, due in large part to the relationship between alcohol abuse and violence.
“Hashtag activism is a great way to raise awareness about issues in society, to shift public opinion, and to influence public policy. But we need to start thinking beyond hashtags if we want to make a real change in the world, especially when it comes to using technology to solve issues like domestic violence,” says Joanne Van der Walt, Global Director of Promotions at Sage Foundation.
That’s exactly what rAInbow, a world first launched in South Africa earlier this month, seeks to achieve.
Built by AI for Good, in partnership with the Soul City Institute for Social Justice and the Sage Foundation, rAInbow, is an artificial intelligence (AI) powered smart companion that aims to democratise access to information and support for victims of domestic violence, using familiar technology, like Facebook Messenger.
Speaking to rAInbow is like speaking to a friend, says Kriti Sharma, leading global voice on ethical technology and founder of AI for Good. “Users can ask questions like, ‘My partner takes my money, what can I do?’, ‘He hits me, can you help me?’, and ‘My partner calls me abusive names, is this normal?’ rAInbow provides answers in friendly, simple language, and will guide victims in getting the help they need. To date, rAInbow has had over 50 000 active conversations.”
Out of the shadows
“Abuse can be an isolating experience. Women often don’t seek support, either because of the stigma associated with it, because they’re embarrassed, or they genuinely believe it’s their fault. Because of this, it largely goes unnoticed and unreported. rAInbow provides emotional support and information about victims’ legal rights and support options, in times when a human is not available or they’re not comfortable talking to another person.”
As a technology company that champions women’s rights and empowerment, Van der Walt says Sage Foundation was proud to fund the launch of this world-first solution in South Africa, which has one of the highest femicide rates in the world. “The more openly we talk about social issues like domestic violence, the faster we can break the stigma and get more people to seek help. For this reason, we’ve created our own hashtag, #IamrAInbow, to have those open, honest conversations, not only about abuse but about how we can use technology to bring about meaningful change.”
Sharma stresses that rAInbow does not intend to replace the human connection. The hope is that, in talking to rAInbow, victims will have taken the first step to getting help.
Tech for good
South Africa is becoming increasingly digital. More people have access to smartphones and mobile data, which makes it easier to reach victims using tools like rAInbow and social media.
“With technology, we can democratise access to help, support and information for everyone – not just victims, but also their friends and family. These are the people who usually see the first signs of abuse but don’t know how to offer support, and don’t know if their advice is correct or useful. rAInbow can support them, too.”
Soul City held focus groups with victims of abuse and it emerged that, often, women just want someone to talk to, to know that they’re not alone and that what they’re going through is not okay. Abuse has no boundaries. It affects everyone, from women at the height of their corporate careers, to those from the poorest backgrounds, across all race groups and social classes. Yet, in every case, there are similarities, and when we start talking openly about these and raising awareness, women start to realise it’s not normal.
Time for change
“The world doesn’t need another food delivery app, and people are starting to realise that we can use technology to solve real problems, in everything from legal and financial services, to remote healthcare and education. There’s no shortage of challenges; we just need people who are motivated to solve them using the tools available today,” says Sharma.
She adds that the data collected from these solutions can be used to drive change in society.
“With rAInbow, for example, we made a strong design decision to maintain users’ privacy. Any data we collect will be anonymised, but the patterns that emerge from that data can be used to inform social reform or drive conversations with authorities to ask for change.”
“Everyone in society, regardless of whether they’re in an abusive relationship, should be informed enough to handle these situations. We need to work together to bring the stats down from one in three women facing abuse, to none,” concludes Van der Walt.
* To listen to the podcast with Kriti Sharma, click here.
* To start talking to rAInbow, search for rAInbow in Facebook Messenger and say ‘hello’. Or visit www.hirainbow.org and click ‘Start talking’.
* To find out how you can get involved with the rAInbow project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.