The internet can be a tricky place to out sexual assault offenders. Will anyone believe your story? Will you be trolled? Will the conversation endanger you further? How will your family and friends react? Those were the challenges that the #MeToo movement in India and the world threw up.
Now, a new app called Smashboard is trying to address at least some of those challenges through technology.
Founded by Noopur Tiwari, an independent journalist, the app, launched on Nov. 12, positions itself as a “digital ally” for women, men, and non-normative gender survivors of sexual abuse.
With features like a time-stamped journal, and enlisted mental health and legal practitioners, Smashboard’s basic aim is to make reporting a sexual crime less traumatic for the survivor by using blockchain to create an online, private and encrypted ledgers of the assault. “Seeking help can be risky for survivors, and there are consequences of revealing one’s identity. Often, survivors have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder that comes in the way of seeking help,” explains Tiwari.
While the idea for this platform was germinating in 2016, #MeToo gave Tiwari and her team the momentum their work needed. Putting together a small team in Spain, Tiwari was all set to launch the app in 2018, when one of her own team members complained about being sexually harassed by the Spanish coders creating Smashboard. “The coders who were working for us pulled out of the project because one of our team members was abused by a tech-bro of theirs. Our ‘punishment’ for speaking out against this supposed hero was them trying to tank our project at the last minute and leaving us without any code,” Tiwari recalls.
But gathering forces again, and this time those who truly believed in the cause, Smashboard’s team got to work again.
Currently, it is self-funded, and the founding team, which has Monica Narula as the director of operations, and Mridul as the director of technology, will soon launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise money. But Tiwari wants to steer clear of a business model that harvests data from its users. Once it gains traction, Smashboard will explore a revenue-sharing agreement with lawyers and therapists who get clients through the app.
The focus, for now, is on creating a robust community of survivors, professionals who can help them overcome their trauma, and people who can at least think about dismantling patriarchy.
An online ally
A lot of Smashboard’s features came from Tiwari’s experiences with aiding survivors of sexual assault. Sometimes, it became difficult to find the right kind of allies, especially if the accused was from a politically well-connected family. Other times, it was simply exhausting for a survivor to constantly repeat the timeline of her assault every time she met a new lawyer or mental health practitioner.
“When reporting sexual abuse, survivors often go through a process that is retraumatising and that further victimises them. Health care and legal/judicial systems are not sensitive to the unique needs of survivors and are not trained to approach their interactions with survivors from a trauma-informed perspective,” explains Vandita Morarka, founder and CEO of One Future Collective, a non-profit working towards building youth social leadership. “The way the legal process is built, right from filing an FIR, can also act as a trigger to someone who has faced sexual violence,” she adds.
Smashboard tries to overcome that hurdle.
“We allow pseudo-anonymity to the users so that they can have initial conversations from the comfort of their beds, if need be, before they feel comfortable enough to work with, say a therapist or share info with a journalist or a lawyer. Survivors will know the tremendous value of this kind of space,” explains Tiwari.
And this anonymity is ensured with the use of blockchain. The technology also helps women record, with an indelible timestamp, the events of their sexual assault, which would eventually help them while dealing with the police and judicial authorities.
Tiwari, though, believes that should the Indian government regulate and legalise cryptocurrencies, blockchain would also enable Smashboard to launch a coin offering called SMASH, a cryptocurrency to fight patriarchy.
In essence, such a currency could be used to fund feminist campaigns, digital tools, and grassroots initiatives, from investors who are ideologically aligned to the cause. “Ethical investing should be encouraged in the crypto world. Right now, it’s too murky and too sexist,” she explains.
Tiwari believes that the cryptomarket is currently dominated by “dude bros” and young coders who do not understand the concept of toxic masculinity. “If blockchain is disruptive and is going to be the next big thing after the internet, women should be early adopters. That’s easier said than done because most techies are virulently sexist men. Only those who are not are our allies,” she adds.
This also stems from the understanding that technology can often be gendered and work against women. “The tech space is dominated by men and tech solutions are also not shaped for or by women. We need to keep working to change that. This isn’t a new idea. Feminists like Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant, Judie Wajcman, etc, have written about this in the 1990s,” she says.
A currency may be a pipe dream at this stage, but the app in its current form offers interesting feminist material for meaningful conversation. It curates articles from feminist writers, journalists covering gender violence, and publications like Bitch Media.
Smashboard also enables survivors to reach out to verified journalists, should they want to expose their sexual abuser, or if the authorities don’t take their complaints seriously. All of these conversations are encrypted over a secure server.
A lot of the understanding of the importance of privacy for a survivor comes from the team of feminist activists and social entrepreneurs on Smashboard’s advisory board. Urvashi Butalia, CEO of Zubaan Books, and Christina Thomas Dhanaraj, co-founder of the Dalit History Month, a project chronicling neglected histories of marginalised communities, are part of Smashboard’s team of advisors.
This diversity would come in handy given how the ease of accessing the right kind of help can vastly differ. “How difficult seeking or getting help can be, varies from person to person and often depends on the identity of the survivor: this would include how supportive their social systems are, how they are placed financially, or how informed they are. This would also include other aspects of their social identity, like gender, caste, religion and so on,” explains Morarka.
However, Smashboard, in its current form, is limited to those who own a smartphone and are fluent in English, Spanish, and French. Tiwari hopes that once the team expands, Smashboard can cast its net wider to non-English speaking audiences in India. “One of our goals is to make Smashboard work for Dalit women and women of other marginalised sections. How can we simplify tech to reach those who don’t have smartphones?” she says.