A new app in Montenegro helps victims of domestic violence to ask for quick help. Photo: UNDP Montenegro

If you get lost in the wilderness, there’s an app to dispatch the rescue service. If you face a medical emergency, there’s an app to navigate the paramedics to your location. If you are held at gunpoint by a robber, there’s an app to alarm 911, too. Literally, for almost every precarious situation you can think of – there’s a mobile phone application that can help save lives.

But what if you are trapped at home, with an abusive partner, worrying they may have another outburst of anger? While fearing for your own life, the mere thought that your children’s safety is also at stake triggers the inner instinct to protect them. You get the surge of strength to call for help, but know that if you dare make a phone call he’ll be infuriated.  

Picturing this real-life situation and many similar testimonies that we hear on a daily basis, we at the UNDP in Montenegro wanted to come up with a smart digital solution for victims to ask for quick help.   

The key measures to halt the spread of Coronavirus – such as lockdown, restriction of movement and social isolation - have left many women more vulnerable to violence. With nowhere to go, risking being arrested if they got caught on the street past the curfew, and shelters closed, it feels as if there’s no way out. Distressed from the abuse itself, confined and discouraged by the lack of support, many women feel helpless and at the mercy of their oppressor.

After just one month, emerging data from civil society proved our worst fears. Civil society organisations were flooded with requests for help. Some recorded an 30 percent increase in reports, many through an intermediary party, as victims live in fear of retaliation. We had no time to spare: UNDP joined hands with tech savvy developers and key partners – CSOs, government, police, judiciary, ombudsperson – to come up with a solution.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

In less than a couple of weeks, it was up and running: Be Safe mobile app was launched and is available for android and iPhone users in Montenegro. We are now working to make it available for scaling-up and replication across the Western Balkans, as its key features are applicable regardless of the country or language:

·       Free of charge: One tap to alert the National SOS Helpline and ask for help;

·       It triggers an alarm via text message with precise geo-location;

·       Safe, quick, reliable, confidential and discreet channel of communication; 

·       Professional staff, educated and trained to support victims, will immediately reach out and assess what kind of support is needed given the specific situation;

·       A built-in feature allows you to opt to contact close persons or organisations you trust;

·       It contains a wealth of educational and informative content: explanation about the victims’ rights and entitlements; useful contacts; video tutorials on self-defence and much more.

Though it’s still in its early days, the app has already gained massive traction. It reached some 4,240 downloads in less than 10 days. Our two video animations gained more than 35,000 views on YouTube.

Data shows us that the app is largely used in the northern, rural part of the country. This might be an insight into the geographic face of gender-based violence. Another interesting phenomenon is that many men are testing the app. Experts say this may be an indication of controlling behaviour patterns, even though victims are sometimes men themselves. More time will be needed to collect reliable data to determine the extent of COVID-19 impact and make informed decisions.

The app was developed amidst the COVID-19 crisis, but it actually provides a long-term solution for all those situations when you can’t call.

While we are all pleased that Montenegro is keeping the epidemic under control, with no cases registered over the past two weeks, we are painstakingly aware of the looming pressures. Economic and social strains brought on by this health crisis are yet to be felt in full blown force. Loss of income and unrelenting uncertainties will most likely amplify the negative patriarchal norms, resulting in increased anxiety – which in turn reinforces the violent behaviour.

We are now looking into options to upgrade the app to provide chat counselling and peer support by violence survivors.  

BEYOND THE APP

The app is just one way we’re addressing this problem. In order to strengthen the overall system, we at UNDP Montenegro are also providing policy advice to the government.

We helped develop the Crisis Action Plan, aligned with the Istanbul Convention, which gives clear guidelines on how to act during the pandemic. For example, the plan allows citizens to move during the lockdown if fleeing from violence, reporting a case, or assisting someone to escape. We are also advocating to ensure consistent availability of services, such as shelters and alternative accommodation (meeting the health requirements), as well as online services, such as e-counselling. To this end, we will allocate grants for the civil society, thanks to the EU funds.

Last but not least, as part of the overall COVD-19 socio-economic analysis, we are conducting a rapid gender impact assessment, which will provide an insight into the labour market, unpaid care work and the burden shared by women frontline workers.    

While the focus on most COVID-19 response efforts is on public health and saving lives, the needs of actual or potential victims of gender-based violence may fall through the cracks. It is our job to examine these cracks with the magnifying glass and mend them through the whole of society response, in such a way that they will not reappear again.

UNDP is working across the region to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Find out more about our work.

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