Domestic violence researchers are trialling a website that works like a counselling service for women experiencing violence, as the number of apps and web-based tools being offered to support women continues to grow.
The latest innovation, produced by a research team at the University of Melbourne, not only directs women to services but also enables them to reflect on their relationships and help them make decisions about their safety and wellbeing without having to contact a service.
Dr Laura Tarzia, a research fellow at the Department of General Practice and the co-ordinator of the project, says not all women want to contact a service and the device is one way victims can find help and support privately and anonymously.
Called I-DECIDE and funded by the Australian Research Council, the website allows visitors to engage with questions about their relationships. In return, the device makes suggestions and offers strategies that are tailored to the woman’s needs.
The site is currently being tested in a randomised controlled trial by more than 400 women, and is expected to be made available to the public next year. Feedback so far has been positive, with some women in the trial describing the site as being akin to a personal hotline.
“It’s a lot different to a lot of things out there,” says Dr Tarzia. “It’s highly interactive and individualised to the woman in the way that it is responsive to the answers she gives.”
Dr Tarzia says not all women want to leave a relationship and I-DECIDE is helpful regardless of a woman’s decision about her relationship, providing them with strategies in how to be safer at home if they do decide to stay.
She says the research had shown that sometimes women did not like to be told what they should do and needed to reach their own decisions in their own time about their safety and wellbeing and that of their children.
“It was a critical issue we took on board when developing I-DECIDE, in making sure that the language used on the website and the messaging it gives back to women is supportive and non-judgmental, so they can feel more empowered about their own decisions.
“It doesn’t judge them or provide any directive about what is the appropriate thing [to do] as we found this is a key reason why women don’t talk to family and friends or even [to] a health professional.”
Dr Tarzia says there are a lot of reasons why women may be uncomfortable accessing a domestic violence service or picking up the phone to call someone, and so providing assistance online is an innovative way women can find support privately.
Professor Kelsey Hegarty, a researcher in domestic violence and chief investigator for the I-DECIDE project, says technology can be an “accessible, private, confidential and safe” way for women to get information.
She says it is filling a gap for people who may be isolated by perpetrators or living in rural areas or are disabled, and is especially useful where there are no local services.
“The area of responding to domestic violence through apps and internet-based tools is really blossoming and several have been launched lately,” she says. “Certainly in other areas, in mental health [for instance], there are a lot of responses or interventions or tools to assist people when they are depressed and if we can’t reach out to women [experiencing abuse] through technology then that’s a real shame.”
Doncare Community Services launched the iMatter app earlier this year, which is aimed at helping young women between 18 and 24 identify the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, as research shows this age group is vulnerable to misinterpreting controlling and abusive behaviours as protective and caring.
Promoted like I-DECIDE as a relationship tool, the app aims to educate young women about self-esteem, disrespect and gender inequality as users engage through quizzes, articles, videos and inspirational images, as well as opportunities to share stories with other participants.
Launched with the support of Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, it was downloaded 4600 times in the first four weeks and is expected soon to have topped 9000.
A spokesperson for Doncare told The Citizen that Ms Batty’s support had given the app “a massive boost in publicity”, with users having rated the app overall 4.5 out of a possible 5.
Doncare also launched with the financial support of the Rotary Club of Doncaster the LiveFree app a year ago, which helps to bring awareness to the issues around domestic violence and provides information on where to get help if a woman feels unsafe.
Recently made available for android devices, it has been downloaded 900 times and has also received a 4.5 out of 5 rating. Both apps have Facebook pages, with iMatter also on Twitter and Instagram.
Another app launched early this year that provides women with information and directs them to services is DAISY, developed by the sexual assault and family violence counselling service 1800RESPECT.
According to the Department of Social Services, DAISY is being downloaded approximately 100 times a week since its launch on March 5. It was a finalist in the recent Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) iAwards, after winning its state category for innovative use of information and communications technology.
An upgrade was released early this month that included information translated into 28 languages and a text-to-voice functionality to assist women with vision impairment or low literacy, as well as an SMS function for women living in rural or remote areas.
Ironically, advances in technology and particularly in smart phones are also creating new problems for women experiencing violence, with the 24-hour nature of technology allowing perpetrators more scope in harassing or threatening partners or ex-partners.
Legal Aid Victoria told The Citizen that the courts were seeing increasing numbers of cases in which technology had been used as a form of harassment, control and intimidation, with a lot of intervention orders being breached by a person sending multiple text messages or posting on a person’s Facebook account.
Research published in 2013 by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria revealed that text messaging was the number one form of harassment used by perpetrators, with some women receiving more than 200 texts a day.
For this reason, the centre is trialling an app called SmartSafe+ where one of its functions is to enable women to gather evidence of tech-related abuse that can be stored in an account on Cloud, making the information accessible even if the phone is lost, damaged or stolen.
Krista Mogensen, of the resource centre, says it is like an “evidence collection diary” that keeps all the information in one place and which can be drawn upon by a victim to get an intervention order or to provide evidence that there has been a breach of an intervention order.
The app is currently being trialled by a small number of women, with the team at the Domestic Violence Resource Centre hoping it will go statewide next month and eventually be offered nationally.
Ms Mogensen says it may take time for the effects of SmartSafe+ to reach the courts but so far it has received a lot of support from the justice system and the feedback has been that it could help speed up court processes.
“Because the app asks questions like which police station did you go to or what’s the name and registered number of the police officer, all the details are already stored, it’s not lost and doesn’t have to be reassembled,” she says.
Nor does it require a high level of technical knowledge by the user. More importantly, it helps educate women on how to use technology safely with tech tips built into the app.
“Sometimes, women are told to turn off their phones or not to post to Facebook, but we say no to that because we want women to stay connected to their communities,” she says. “We want to improve a person’s understanding of what tech safety looks like and that phones can be a positive tool.”
Virginia Geddes, who until recently was chief executive of the resource centre, says there are quite a few dangers around technology but it can also offer opportunities for enhancing women’s safety.
She says it is likely that most women experiencing violence will not seek help or contact a service, and the advantage of technology is that it may lead them to a service so they can talk more about their situation.
“Technology will not replace the need for more support services to help women who are experiencing violence,” she says. “Face-to-face counselling is still very important.
“Some women may need a lot of discussion about their situation and may need to explore safety options with a domestic violence specialist, particularly women who are at very high risk.”
► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For practical information and confidential support visit I-DECIDE, an online interactive tool for women in unhealthy or unsafe relationships.