When authorities failed, a South African newspaper built an app to support gender violence victims

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Diepsloot, Johannesburg

It’s the end of the month in Diepsloot, a dangerous time for women. Many people in the impoverished township are paid their wages in the last week of the month, which researchers say leads to alcohol abuse and violence. In this densely populated yet underserviced neighborhood, police cannot reach many of the victims. That’s where Vimba comes in, an app spearheaded by journalists shocked at the violence and hopelessness they witnessed.

Meaning prevent, stop or halt in isiZulu, the Vimba app connects survivors with assisting organizations offering shelter, legal assistance and counseling for free. Dialing *134*403# directs women toward services for women who have been raped or abused, or anyone who wants to help them. It also texts back practical information on what to do when attacked, like advising women on getting HIV prevention within 72-hours of being raped.

The app was developed by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, a division of one of South Africa’s most respected independent newspapers, the Mail and Guardian. The need for the app was highlighted by the center’s own reporting on the prevalence of child rape in Diepsloot, and showed just how hopeless the situation seemed for victims. The health journalism center teamed up with non-governmental organizations in the township north of Johannesburg to create an app that would extend their support networks.

The nearest state-funded care center is over 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away, and families had no idea how to support survivors, especially when their perpetrators lived nearby. Bhekisisa’s in-depth report followed the discovery of the bodies of two toddler girls— raped, strangled and hidden in a toilet in a toilet cubicle in 2013.

South Africa has long struggled to with gender violence. The challenges are complex: social and economic dominance by men and sexual entitlement are spurred by unemployment and substance abuse, driving perpetrators to violence. Victims brave enough to report are further let down by poor policing and an ill-equipped justice system. Social stigma, however, means most will remain silent.

The Vimba app finds help for women reporting rape and domestic violence in Johannesburg’s notorious Diepsloot township
Growing up in Diepsloot. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Diepsloot, an impoverished black township where the population ranges from the official count 138,000 to the unofficial estimate of 500,000, is tragically the ideal cross-section of the social, economic and structural challenges to addressing gender violence. The neighborhood is divided into 13 extensions, some of which have seen developments like state-housing projects, while others are still squalid.

A study conducted by the Sonke Gender Justice organization found that 56% of the 2,600 men they surveyed admitted to having raped or beaten woman in the last year. Worse, 60% of those men said they’d done it multiple times. Their victims, researchers said, live in constant fear that their trauma will be repeated and that their attackers will never be punished.

“That shows us what we’ve experienced to be true: domestic violence and socially violence is normalized in the community,” said Lindsay Henson of Lawyers Against Abuse, a center that offers much needed legal, social and psychological support for women from a humble container office. The app will help to connect women from all over Diepsloot with Lawyers Against Abuse.

“Most of the squatter camps are not accessible with a car so even if you called the police…they cannot enter,” said Brown Lekekela, the man behind the Green Door shelter, which the app also links to. Possibly the only shelter in the area, and run solely by Lekekela from his own home, Green Door offers a temporary haven and advice to women who want to get away from abusive partners.

“Most of the jobs found here are done by men so men are the main providers,” he tells Quartz. “They feel entitled to do anything they want to a woman.” In Diepsloot, as in many parts of South Africa, many victims are economically reliant on their abusive partners.

The Vimba app finds help for women reporting rape and domestic violence in Johannesburg’s notorious Diepsloot township
How to use the Vimba app. (Bhekisisa (Mail and Guardian)/John McCann)

Vimba was specifically built to bypass this, explains the Bhekisisa project manager Laura Grant. Studies showed that most residents in Diepsloot had cellphones, but could not afford the data costs needed to access the internet.Developers used USSD protocol, unstructured supplementary service data, to create an app that doesn’t carry data costs, and all a victim has to do is dial the number. It goes further by reverse-charging calls made to the police and outreach organizations.

The app in turn collects data about gender violence in Diepsloot, tracking when and where complaints come from, at what time of the day and when during the year violence occurs. The back-end of the app is available to partner organizations like Green Door, Lawyers Against Abuse, Sonke Gender Justice, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and Africa Tikkun, a youth outreach program. Bhekisisa plans to launch a website to share the data with anyone who wants to help in Diepsloot.

“Hopefully, the data we will collect will show people that more resources are needed,” said Grant.

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