How tech is vital in the battle against gender-based violence

Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Oupa Makhalemele.

By Oupa Makhalemele, Film and Publication Board Research, Policy and Advocacy Officer 

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) continues cementing its presence in our everyday life, keeping abreast of the developments in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is everyone’s responsibility. There is no better time to start thinking of ways in which technology can be harnessed to improve the lot of women, especially when it comes to their safety in a predominantly misogynistic world. 

The more things change… 

The abuse of women and children, our woefully inadequate health system and our failure to bring the multitudes of marginalised people on board to enjoy the fruits of our hard-earned democracy, must haunt those women who stood defiantly against South Africa’s unjust apartheid government at its citadel in 1956. 

Granted, a lot has changed since then, with the democratically elected South African government stridently putting in place measures to foster a society where gender equality is a reality. Political will, we feel strongly, is a key ingredient in fighting the scourge of violence against women. 

The commitment to draft the Bill on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide should be followed with action. It is hoped that whatever the policy outcomes, this initiative will provide impetus to this fight through effective implementation. 

Hostility follows women online 

Despite efforts to improve the status of women, however, we have seen the perennial problem of women’s subjugation in a male-dominated society follow us into the cyberspace. Troubling behaviour has manifested online. Incidents such as revenge porn (where jilted boyfriends post nude pictures, addresses and names of their exes) are not uncommon. Women who use their influential voice against patriarchy and injustice are often trolled, with threats of rape made against them. Also, it is almost always the women who face public opprobrium whenever there is a heterosexual sex-tape. All this leads us to conclude that the internet has no firewall for patriarchy. 

Of course, this does not mean that government is impervious to these abuses. The recently promulgated Films and Publications Amendment Act of 2019 in SA is a step in the right direction when it comes to addressing these online abuses of women. The Act makes specific provisions to outlaw revenge pornography. A lot more needs to happen and here we reflect on some ideas. 

How can we rope in technology to enhance the safety of women? 

Many across the world welcome the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The potential of this innovation to improve many aspects of life is lost only to the most pessimistic amongst us. Yet, we need to constantly ask ourselves: How can we invoke AI to improve the lives of the many left behind in the transition to our democracy? And, as we mention above, women constitute the majority of the marginalised. For sure AI is going to make life easier, but that will also usher in unprecedented inequalities. The generation today holds the status of being the wealthiest yet most unequal in history. We have to occupy ourselves with the challenge of never allowing the poor to disappear in the long shadow cast by the 4IR boom. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the scourge of women abuse. When SA Police Minister, Bheki Cele, reported that collectively 87 000 cases of gender-based violence were reported across South Africa during the lockdown, that did not come as a surprise. It was a chilling reminder to us that across the country, one in four women face violence from their partners daily. 

More chilling, however, is the fact that reported cases of violence against women represent only a fraction of the actual scope of this crime. Women are discouraged from reporting for various reasons. The patriarchal system for example renders women dependent on their abusers, making them reluctant to escalate things for fear of loss of succour, especially for their children. Another deterrent is the indifferent and sometimes abusive treatment they receive when they report GBV to the police. 

It is high time we add technology to this arsenal. We do not for a second propose that technology will end violence against women, or GBV. That is a problem rooted in our cultural practices, including how women are portrayed in the media. Data, however, can come in handy. Accurate data gives us objective information about trends, incidences, and locations where things happen. 

In his book Midlands, Johnny Steinberg reflects on his method for learning about a town. He notes, for example, that studying the town’s mortuary records is useful. This way, one can learn a lot about how people live and die; what causes their deaths; who is involved in the unnatural deaths and how and when they happen. The Medical Research Council also does this work brilliantly, contributing to the collection of more accurate data about victims of GBV. This is critical because statistics punted in the media on GBV are often unreliable and often conflate unrelated data. 

Our African counterparts in Egypt have been using hard data to great effect, bringing technology to work for them in fighting GBV. In Egypt, there is an organisation called “Harrassmap”, set up in 2010. They collect stories on street harassment, gang abuse and also maps of where the incidents took place. Witnesses are prepared to attend court to corroborate victim stories. This data also helps in terms of policy and intervention from authorities and other stakeholders. This is the kind of tool we could learn from and tweak for our needs. 

Statistics show that there are more than 101 million smartphones in South Africa. That means almost every household has 1 smartphone. There is no doubting the ubiquity of smartphones in all corners of our country. Social media networks can be used to share information and educate women about GBV. 

This same platform could be used also to educate young men about positive masculinity (as a counterpoint to promoting toxic masculinity), where respect for women is normalised and misogyny is frowned upon. In other words, as social media today is a platform for carrying messages that are anti-women; the same tool can be repurposed to turn the tide of the puerile patriarchy and misogyny online and affirm women as deserving of equitable treatment in all spheres of life. 

In rural and isolated locations, local authorities and community workers could partner to lobby for centres where women are trained in the use of social media tools and to share lessons and resources to spread education about GBV and what to do when attacked. 

Wearable technology has also become common, helping individuals track their exercise and diet progress. It is good to note that there is an application that sends out a loud alarm when pressed by a rape victim. It alerts several people she has handpicked to assist in such an event. We hope to see such applications being used and saving women and deterring perpetrators. Where smartphones or wearable gadgets are not available, a text version of such a service should be made available. 


Being the unequal society that we are, and the poor and marginalised forming a vast majority of our population, we cannot pat ourselves in the back and say we have put in place tools to take South Africans into the Fourth Industrial Revolution when the majority cannot access those tools. 

The cost of data in South Africa remains high, ranking among the highest in Africa. The worst part of this story is that this cost is higher for the poor, since data cost becomes significantly reduced when you buy in bulk, which the poor cannot afford to do. 

Access to healthcare 

GBV is not isolated to poor people - it happens in townships, rural villages, in gated communities and in leafy suburbs with manicured lawns. But it is victims in marginalised communities who struggle the most to gain access to medical care. This point of intervention is also crucial for evidence gathering when you want to secure a conviction. Technology can surely come to play here, developing applications about what to do and linking women to nearby centres of service and assist with the collection of evidence. 

Public-private funding of “Tech for development” 

None of this will come cheap, especially in the initial stages of this important transition. Government should play a key role. The private sector also needs to invest resources in this drive. The low hanging fruit can come by way of reducing data costs by internet service providers. Sponsorship of local centres by the private sector can go a long way to reach poor communities. 

Government and its agencies, through regulation, have a critical role to play. Linking up with other efforts in the region and on the continent to foster a developmental agenda is an important step for governments and organisations to follow. 

Institutions of higher learning should continue with training and innovation to find solutions to our unique problems, while also seeking ways to make inroads in the fast-growing global 4IR economy.