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In SA, a woman is murdered every three hours. Last year, 41,583 rapes were reported in the country — a rate of 114 a day, or almost five every hour. The country has the fourth-highest rate of interpersonal violence against women (12.5 for every 100,000); almost five times the global average.

This is according to national police statistics and the most recent numbers from the World Health Organisation, as published by fact-checking outfit Africa Check.

But a seemingly lacklustre response from the government over the years has belied the extent — and importance — of the problem. Just three months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet agenda made mention of gender-based violence (GBV) under "upcoming events" — a reference to National Women’s Day on August 9. The wording about "empowerment", "abuse" and "protection" gave the impression that GBV is an issue that’s simply wheeled out each August, when the country marks that day.

But August 2019 was to prove different — it became the month in which SA’s women said "no more". The rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana in a post office unleashed a public outcry. The names of other victims of femicide were also headlined, and a protest outside a meeting of the World Economic Forum demanded the attention of the president.

By mid-September, Ramaphosa had called for an urgent joint sitting of parliament to address what had by then been labelled a "national emergency". An amount of R1.6bn in crisis funding was reallocated to boost the department of social development’s programmes and services, and the department encouraged victims of GBV to use its dedicated 24-hour national call centre.

Back in 2014, a report by consulting firm KPMG found that GBV could cost the economy as much as R42bn a year. It said improved access to reporting and data analysis was essential not just from a human rights perspective, but from an economic one too.

That same year, the department of social development established its call centre, through which more than 40 social workers provide immediate telephonic assistance to vulnerable people. Through mobile technology, callers’ data is captured to alert government departments involved in GBV reporting and support services.

Lisa Gahan, an independent analyst who was the lead consultant on the KPMG report, tells the FM: "I think the recommendations [in the report] are all still relevant. I would [like to] emphasise how conservative we were with our methodology, and that the actual GDP impact is likely significantly higher. Eliminating GBV is a matter of human rights, irrespective of cost, but we consider cost in order to help policymakers prioritise GBV as an imperative in reaching our national development goals."

Many analysts in the field of GBV focus on the importance of human interaction in targeting the problem. In 2017, for example, Stellenbosch University political sciences professor Amanda Gouws argued that describing GBV as a "scourge" is misleading; it can make the acts of the perpetrators invisible. She suggested instead a closer examination of the social conditions that give rise to and enable GBV, and that sustainable interventions be based on that.

The Institute of Security Studies made a similar point more recently: GBV in SA is embedded in a culture of violence.

It is in this social space that some successful interventions are taking root, albeit on a small scale. The Small Projects Foundation (SPF), an NGO that operates out of Buffalo City in the Eastern Cape, works in tandem with a number of development agencies that support at-risk communities battling social issues such as HIV/Aids, unemployment and GBV.

In 2018, SPF ran a pilot mobile technology programme using easily available old GSM cellphone technology as part of an outreach project for women and children in rural and impoverished areas of the Eastern Cape.

Assisted by Cape Town-based mobile solutions company Apex Visibility, SPF ran the project over the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. It sent SMS messages to 872 people — mostly women — on the database of SPF partner organisation Bumb’ingomso, providing a free number that respondents could contact anonymously. Once dialled in, they could report abuse by responding to text prompts that guided them through a reporting journey.

The phone line was secure and anonymised, and the feedback curve generated by the replies to specific questions allowed SPF to analyse locations, levels of danger, and what kind of support the respondent would need. The data provided through the mobile channel was also used to activate networked organisations, like Masimanyane Women’s Rights International, which could offer victims of GBV access to official reporting channels and counselling support. In the case of emergencies, callers were put in contact with the Bumb’ingomso call centre, allowing a social worker to be dispatched to take the caller to a place of safety.

Of the 872 people reached, 526 had been directly affected by GBV during the 16 days — and of those, 63 were rescued from life-threatening situations.

Taking the 8,700-odd reported rapes in the Eastern Cape, as well as other reported cases of sexual assault against women and children, and factoring in an underreporting multiple of nine, SPF estimates that there are at least 100,000 cases of GBV a year in the Eastern Cape alone.

It’s a number that Gahan believes to be sound. "If there are more than 41,000 cases of reported rape [across SA], then all [cases of] GBV would be greater than that," she says. "Plus, you would multiply by nine to factor in those who don’t report. The 100,000 [figure] certainly doesn’t sound like an overestimate."

Against such numbers, the 63 assisted survivors from the pilot may seem a drop in the ocean — but Paul Cromhout, head of SPF, says mobile solutions offer the most promising means of combating GBV, given the problems of reporting and the deep stigma attached to seeking out support.

"Women and children are in the vulnerable position of being powerless to act," he says. "It was only by us reaching out through our database that women would request help anonymously, many preferring to say their ‘friend’ was in need."

Support for GBV survivors fails, he says, because most organisations do not co-ordinate their services, which means too many women fall through the safety net, especially in impoverished rural areas.

Executive director of Apex Visibility Richard Nischk says his company’s software works to close the gaps in the support system by "modularising" the survivor’s journey. By logging information and capturing data, the survivor can be referred to the closest networked organisations that can provide the right kind of assistance.

"There are more cellphone subscriptions than people in SA," says Nischk, "meaning mobile solutions are easily scalable."

Apex, which includes social impact in its portfolio of services, bills clients such as SPF monthly, according to the size of their campaigns, the number of channels rented and various value-add services.

Nischk points out that while NGOs have limited budgets, donors are usually willing to invest in this type of project because of the measurability it allows. "Clients such as SPF can offer donors a measurables and evaluation report that shows them exactly how many people have been assisted."

Using technology to combat GBV in development contexts is not new. In 2012 the Mumbai-based Red Dot Foundation group launched the Safecity platform, which crowd-sources stories from women who have experienced GBV and uses the data for research purposes and to flag danger zones in the city. The group claims to have gathered more than 10,000 stories to date.

Since then, many other apps in the mobile-for-development space have been developed for specific needs: caller identification that reveals caller location, for example, and SMS-to-web solutions, where phone users are called back by call centre operators.

But GBV activist and researcher Lisa Vetten says the department of social development’s call centre has been hugely underutilised. She cautions that technology-led solutions have the potential to distract from the more fundamental problems underlying GBV that need to be fixed.

"GBV is about broken trust between human beings, and no app or call centre will replace the human connection needed for healing," says Vetten. "As an interim measure it has its place, but we cannot look away from the work we need humans to do in counselling centres that are within reach of vulnerable people."

It’s a point echoed by Nischk. "In our case, mobile technology works alongside the organisations which are fixing the structural problems on the ground," he explains. And it’s tailored to the most vulnerable populations, because it relies on simple cellphone technology, suited to populations with little to no access to internet data.

Cromhout views the partnership similarly. "What the technology revealed to us during the 16 Days period last year was that we as the NGO sector are not geared to suddenly take care of a high volume of women in crisis."

He suggests the stigma of GBV only weakens the capacity of support centres in the NGO sector, as underreporting translates into underresourcing.

To counter this, Cromhout works with a number of in-situ organisations to provide women’s groups and schoolgirls with a simple eight-step "what to do" manual that’s been adapted from the Treatment Action Campaign’s HIV/Aids programme.

Another means of securing the support system for those who live far away from counselling centres is to target schools. To this end, SPF trains teachers in basic counselling, and sets up safe spaces in communities, where teachers and mentors can meet regularly with those in need.

Working with teachers benefits the pupils too. "Life orientation teachers in rural schools are often at a loss to know how to teach basic concepts of GBV to male and female children," says Cromhout. "The government provides guidelines, but we find the best results come from our face-to-face workshops. It is magical to see the teachers walk away [from training] feeling informed and capable."

He admits, though, that he has been disappointed by the number of teachers unwilling to spend time after school attending training, as "45 minutes of class time is simply not enough".

In the meantime, SPF continues its work on the ground, with a second implementation of the cellphone programme — this time running for 30 days — kicking off with this year’s 16 Days, which started on Monday.