Technology Helps Break Silence Against Violence in Haiti

One year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, Survivors Connect, an organization that uses technology and social media to empower citizens around the world to address slavery and violence, has set up a text message helpline to report crimes in the country. In this installment of Digital Diversity, Aashika Damodar, the founder and CEO of Survivors Connect, details how the system works.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Aashika Damodar

Last September a 19-year-old girl in Delmas 33, a tent city on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was assaulted and raped as she was going to the toilet. She sent a text message asking for help.

Marie Sofonie, an operator for the Ayiti SMS SOS helpline, received the message. Marie had personally confronted the threat of violence in the camps, and she spoke to the victim at length about the incident.

It took some time (as it usually does) to arrive at a decision about what to do. The girl was afraid of retaliation by her attacker, and she has not yet filed a police report.

However, the Ayiti SMS SOS team worked with its partners to provide her with medical testing and psychological support. The case has been documented for future reporting.

A year after the earthquake, Haiti is still fighting for its survival amid unspeakable conditions. The brunt of this fight falls on women and children, who are susceptible to sexual abuse, violence and exploitation. Thousands of women and children share similar stories.

The entire country is suffering from trauma. Local authorities, along with religious and community leaders, have lost much of their strength and capacity to lead people and manage local affairs. A survivor says, “The fact of the matter is, Haiti was already in trouble before the quake. Sure I survived the earthquake, but I am still in Haiti and the future is just as terrifying.”

While the situation looks grim, Haitians feel as if they cannot give up. Not without a fight. They argue that to succeed, Haitians themselves need to be placed at the forefront of development efforts and take charge of the agenda.

Survivors Connect is an organization that creatively utilizes technology and social media to empower citizens around the world to address slavery and violence. We firmly believe that any development effort must incorporate local leadership in order to be sustainable. One of our goals is to increase the capacity of local groups to design their own future and that of civil society–as they see best.

Shortly after the earthquake we reached out to Fondation Espoir, a Haitian nonprofit organization. We already knew about existing “restavek” child exploitation, trafficking and sexual abuse issues in Haiti, and feared that conditions in the aftermath of the earthquake would potentially exacerbate the situation. After several brainstorming sessions, we created Ayiti SMS SOS.

Ayiti SMS SOS is a human rights observatory and helpline initiative. The project uses an easy-to-remember 8-digit number (3803-0303) that anyone in Haiti can text if they witness or experience an act of violence. A team of trained social workers/helpline operators will respond or refer the case to the appropriate authorities.

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Ayiti SMS SOS solar-powered training phone, provided by Digicel.

Photo courtesy of Aashika Damodar

The helpline makes use of near ubiquitous ownership and reliability of mobile technology in Haiti. People in Haiti often opt to send a text message (SMS) over a voice call. Using the FrontlineSMS software, we are able to send and receive SMS to communicate with victims and coordinate with service providers. SMS is cost effective, discrete and fast, all of which work to the benefit of our target groups.

The need for a reporting system is dire. Thousands of displaced people still live in camps with little security or privacy, making them susceptible to threats and abuse. The earthquake has increased rates of violence against women and made them more vulnerable to international human trafficking and local commercial sexual exploitation.

In the absence of healthy, functioning institutions, coupled with the current emergency state, issues such as sexual violence against women and children often become “invisible” crimes.

According to our partnering organization KOFAVIV (a women’s grassroots organization dealing with needs of rape victims), women often don’t lodge complaints out of fear of the attackers and/or police. Not trusting the police to protect them and knowing that the justice system is paralyzed, they prefer to keep quiet.

In most cases, an incident like the attack in Delmas 33 would probably go unreported. But, through Ayiti SMS SOS, a mere 160-character message gives a woman the possibility of having her voice heard and receiving help.

While SMS alone wont solve the problem, it’s a powerful tool when combined with tried and tested tactics in trafficking and sexual abuse prevention, education and community building activities.

The Ayiti SMS SOS helpline is part of a larger action plan to train leaders on how to campaign against violence and human rights violations in their community. Rather than simply using billboards or fliers, awareness of the service is spread primarily through word of mouth and discussion groups held at the campsites.

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Ayiti SMS SOS training session on violence prevention.

Photo courtesy of Aashika Damodar

As part of our program, we conduct full day workshops in the camps that are designed to sensitize people about the issues women and children face in a post-crisis context. Both men and women participate, and all trainees become part of a broader network of reporters and first-responders for Ayiti SMS SOS.

Through these tactics, we’re able to build greater levels of trust behind our helpline, encourage people to report violence and break the silence and stigma around these critical issues.

The first anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake has passed, and many Haitians are disappointed that they have still not seen real signs of progress in their immediate environment. As Haiti rebuilds, it is my hope that legislators and government officials will learn from grassroots efforts like Ayiti SMS SOS and take action to combat violence against women and children. That time is now.


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Aashika Damodar is the founder and CEO of Survivors Connect, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing grassroots anti-trafficking service networks in under-served/vulnerable communities using innovative and appropriate ICTs. She has worked the past three years in a number of developing countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, India, Yemen, Ghana and most recently in Haiti working with grassroots organizations to empower and enhance local movements against gender-based violence and slavery. Survivors Connect worked with four Haitian organizations to develop Ayiti SMS SOS that allowed for reporting and documentation of violations via mobile phones, and this project recently won an award from the Society for New Communications Research.

Damodar is a graduate from the University of California, Berkeley in Anthropology and Political Science. She was a Zimmerman Fellow and Freedom Award winner in 2008. Since then, she has dedicated her time to the development of Survivors Connect and is working towards a M Phil in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

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Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.