Nigerian Women with Disabilities Find Hope in a Mobile App
In a Special Report, we explore how innovative technology is making a significant impact in the fight against gender-based violence (GBV), particularly among women with disabilities in Nigeria.
Introduction: A Silent Crisis
Gender-based violence continues to plague communities worldwide, with Nigerian women enduring alarming rates of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their partners. The 2018 Nigeria Demographic Health Survey, conducted between 2013 and 2018, revealed that a shocking 36% of married women in Nigeria had experienced physical abuse, with the statistics showing little improvement over the past decade. While this issue affects women across the board, the plight of women with disabilities like Aisha and Mariam in Adamawa State is particularly dire. They face a unique set of challenges, including social exclusion, limited mobility, a lack of support structures, communication barriers, and negative social perceptions, which make them more susceptible to gender-based violence.
The Genesis of Abuse: Aisha and Mariam’s Stories
For Aisha, her marriage in 2017 was meant to fulfil a lifelong dream. However, it quickly transformed into a nightmare. Her husband’s frustration over her disability, stemming from childhood polio, led to emotional and physical abuse, as he perceived her condition as an impediment to their sexual life.
Mariam’s story is equally heart-wrenching. Marrying in 2020, her husband remained unaware of her constant need for assistance due to her own polio-induced disability. Frustration festered, leading to both physical and economic abuse. Their children’s education suffered, as Mariam was denied the opportunity to work and become financially independent.
The Silent Menace: Economic Abuse
Economic abuse, one of the lesser-recognized forms of gender-based violence, compounds the suffering of women like Mariam. It includes tactics such as denying access to bank accounts, financial information, and decision-making rights. In Mariam’s case, the economic abuse she endured left her and her children financially deprived, isolating them from education and self-sufficiency.
Enter Technology: The Smart Reporting and Referral App (Smart RR)
Relief for Aisha and Mariam finally arrived in 2022 when they attended a training program for women with disabilities. Godiya Simon, the Woman Leader of the Nigerian Association of Persons with Disabilities in Adamawa State, introduced them to the Smart Reporting and Referral (Smart RR) mobile application—a groundbreaking solution that enables reporting of GBV cases.
Developed by Dirug Samuel, founder of the Big Family 360 Foundation, the Smart RR app was launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown in Nigeria in 2020. It quickly gained popularity, with over 500 downloads and 70 reported cases within two weeks of its launch. The app, available in Hausa, features a chat function offering prompts to “talk to a counsellor,” “report a case for yourself,” and “report a case for someone.” It also provides a comprehensive list of support organizations, shelters, and state authorities with contact information. Depending on the user’s needs, the app connects them to Sexual Assault Referral Centers, counsellors, security agencies, or the International Federation of Female Lawyers (FIDA) for legal representation. For users without smartphones, the foundation introduced a USSD code (*347*108#) for reporting cases free of charge, addressing the gender gap in smartphone usage in Nigeria.
Empowering Vulnerable Users
Recognizing that the app’s success hinges on accessibility, it incorporates assistive technology to ensure ease of use. The voice command feature allows visually impaired users to report cases independently. While there is no sign language support, the prompts and assistive technology cater to individuals with physical disabilities. Focal individuals, such as Mrs. Simon, are equipped with smartphones to report cases on behalf of women with disabilities who lack phone access.
A Multifaceted Approach
The app goes beyond merely reporting cases. When a woman reports an instance of domestic violence, responders inform her of her rights under the country’s gender protection laws. She can then choose between legal action and mediation or counselling to reconcile with her spouse. In the case of reconciliation, a community leader and a civil defence official facilitate the process, ensuring accountability and safety. Additional services, such as psychological and medical support, are deployed as needed.
Success Stories: Aisha and Mariam’s Transformation
For Aisha and Mariam, this technology has been transformative. Aisha’s husband ceased his violent behaviour after the intervention, and Mariam’s husband abandoned his abusive ways. Furthermore, the foundation offered Mariam financial assistance to start a business, granting her the autonomy to send her children to school and break free from financial dependence.
A Global Paradigm Shift: GBV and Mobile Technology
The Smart RR app is just one example of how mobile technology is changing the landscape of support for survivors of gender-based violence. Similar apps, such as Kwanele in South Africa and TecSOS across Europe, have provided critical assistance to thousands of survivors. These apps offer features like panic buttons, audio and video streaming, and direct connections to police and support services.
Challenges and Future Prospects
Despite these successes, challenges persist. Of the over 400 reported GBV cases on Smart RR, only 118 have been resolved, with some cases abandoned due to community and religious pressure. Additionally, the app’s reach is currently limited to certain Nigerian states due to financial constraints. However, with more funding, the Big Family 360 Foundation plans to expand its reach to all 36 states in the country. The organization also intends to enhance awareness campaigns, register more service providers and GBV responders, introduce a follow-up mechanism to track reported cases and provide support in multiple languages to better serve survivors. In the fight against gender-based violence, technology is proving to be a powerful ally. The Smart Reporting and Referral app (Smart RR) is a beacon of hope for women like Aisha and Mariam, offering them the support and assistance they desperately need to break free from the cycle of abuse. As this innovative technology continues to evolve, it holds the promise of transforming the lives of countless women, bringing us one step closer to a world free from gender-based violence.
This report is supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and with the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation.