One in three women has experienced gender-based violence (GBV), usually at the hands of someone they know; 38% of murders of women globally are committed by their intimate partners; the World Bank estimates that violence against women can cost up to 3.7% of a country’s GDP in lost productivity, affecting the earning capacity of many families. These were just some of the sobering facts that Sonwabise Mzinyathi, chair of the South African Women in ICT Forum, shared in her talk at the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2021, on how tech could help to address the scourge of GBV.

Mzinyathi said it has taken South Africa decades to refer to GBV as a pandemic. Statistics South Africa has noted that the rate of femicide is five times higher than the global average, and according to the World Health Organization, South Africa has the fourth-highest interpersonal death rate out of 183 countries. In addition, 250 of 100 000 girls and women experience targeted rape with 80% of sexual offences reported in South Africa targeting girls, women and LGBTQI+ communities.

GBV not only negatively affects psychological health but also has a devastating impact on our economy, Mzinyathi said. “The economic cost to manage the scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa is between R28 and R42 billion a year. This covers the cost of social services, shelters and healthcare needed to respond effectively to the crisis – money that could have been used to further development.”

Data collection that informs policy-making and effective interventions

GBV is a complex issue, involving patriarchy, learned behaviour, financial exclusion, and poverty. And while technology is not the sole solution to addressing social ills, it does provide us with tools and knowledge that help to mitigate GBV. “It gives us verification data and cybersecurity technology to combat online gender-based violence,” Mzinyathi said. “It also provides us with cloud-based directories for better reporting and allows us to draw on data accuracy for better policy decisions.”

Mzinyathi has seen how technology can address GBV in her involvement with the South African Women in ICT Forum, which has three programmes to assist women. The first is an ICT talent hub, which provides girls with opportunities to join the sector and aims to retain women within the sector. The second is an entrepreneurs’ corner, which supports women-owned businesses, and the third is a research, learning and policy unit that aims to be a library for women in ICT and contribute to better policymaking.

The Women in ICT Forum, together with the PingAcademy, the Black IT Forum and Precisional Growth, released the Leaky Pipeline Report authored by Syson Kunda, which reveals that women tend to leave the ICT sector because of different types of GBV-related experiences.

Online support for victims of GBV  

Supported by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, the Department of Social Development and UNICEF, the Women in ICT Forum has launched an online GBV engagement platform, which is housed on GovChat. It is a zero-rated progressive web-based application that can be accessed from any browser and is linked to the government’s GBV Command Centre. The platform uses the power of data and analytics to curb GBV and allows users to anonymously access support facilities. It provides interactive real-time reporting.

“This online GBV interactive engagement platform demonstrates how technology can be used to drive social change in real time,” Mzinyathi said. “The platform allows people affected by GBV and their families to access information on key social agencies and in addition provides government with visibility into GBV’s high-risk areas by location, time zone and peak period, using GovChat’s high-tech, data-driven platform. It will also help us to evaluate government interventions and measure impact in order to contribute to policies that ultimately impact all of us.”

The launch of the platform was successful because it involved government, the private sector, civil society, NPOs and active citizens, Mzinyathi said. The platform is currently being updated to make it more accessible to differently abled people.

The recent passing of the Cybercrimes Act into law has given Mzinyathi hope, too. “Far too many people have been victims of unlawful interception of messages for extortion, revenge porn, online and social media bullying, without any consequences. This is a big step in the fight against GBV. It also starts with policy, creating an enabling environment for tech innovations to thrive,” she said.

She concluded that the power of active citizen advocacy helps to ensure that our leaders make meaningful decisions that address GBV. “Technology alone cannot solve the problem, but together with the right user, content, real-time problem-solving, and collaboration between the public and private sectors, it can go a long way towards driving meaningful change. It all boils down to us acting together,” Mzinyathi said.

Written by Loren Anthony

Image: Sonwabise Mzinyathi

Photo taken by Janelle Strydom