Insights and Analysis

5 Things to Know When Designing an App for Ending Violence Against Women

March 2, 2016

By Setha Rath

One year ago, the Cambodian government officially launched its second National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women (NAPVAW), reinforcing its commitment to eliminating violence against women. In the early 1990s, The Asia Foundation broke ground with a landmark study on the underlying causes of domestic violence in Cambodia. Despite some areas of progress, violence against women is still an endemic issue in Cambodia, with a quarter of all women having experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Further, as rapid socio-economic development and poverty reduction increase opportunities for women and girls, new vulnerabilities arise. Not only is violence against women a severe rights abuse; the costs of violence constitute a major impediment to Cambodia’s further social and economic development.

Inspired by Cambodia’s rapid adoption of technology and social media (a recent Asia Foundation research report found that 94 percent of Cambodians now own a mobile phone, with overall smart phone penetration now at 39.5 percent) local activists and the international community have begun pursuing innovative online and mobile solutions as part of broader efforts to combat violence against women. With support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), six months ago – at the culmination of a process driven and designed by local activists at the Cambodia Young Women Empowerment Network for communities most impacted by violence against women – The Asia Foundation launched the first mobile applications to help combat violence against women (explore the initiative at in Cambodia. The applications offer features including legal information, peer support, anonymous reporting, and personal network alerts.

Six months ago, The Asia Foundation launched the first mobile applications to help combat violence against women in Cambodia. The applications offer features including legal information, peer support, anonymous reporting, and personal network alerts.

Six months ago, The Asia Foundation launched the first mobile applications to help combat violence against women in Cambodia. The applications offer features including legal information, peer support, anonymous reporting, and personal network alerts.

The method we used to support the activists was at its essence a process of trial and error of Human-Centered Design (HCD). We started by working with committed activists who had come up with the idea for an app after meeting with women in rural areas who confirmed just how prevalent domestic violence is. We then adopted a design toolkit from, and engaged a skilled design facilitator to help us fill in gaps in our app expertise. The results of our work produced not only four new apps, but an invaluable set of learning points.

From this intensive process we developed the first-ever one-stop shop for mobile solutions to end violence against women, which includes a step-by-step guide for those embarking on designing apps for improving the safety and security of women and girls.

Here are five key takeaways when designing a mobile app for EVAW:

  1. Mobile apps are not a silver bullet: Whether an app focuses on prevention, protection, or response, there are complementary interventions required to combat violence against women. (See the Learning Product). While apps can be a powerful tool, especially in countries with high mobile penetration rates, other interventions are essential, including peer-to-peer education, counseling, and alcohol abuse reduction programs. In addition, apps are not value neutral. There are unique privacy concerns. Data stored in the apps could potentially be accessed by a perpetrator, or even the visible presence of the app on the phone itself could be used to threaten the user and increase the risk of abuse.
  2. Using human-centered design (HCD) does not guarantee instant success for an app: HCD is a framework for designing solutions that are responsive to the unique needs and aspirations of the people they are meant to serve, and it is a common methodology for designing solutions. Based on our experience, HCD is an invaluable methodology to help ensure that the voices of the end users are included in solutions for EVAW. But in order for the process to be as powerful as its potential, it requires a firm commitment to engaging end-users throughout the design process. Understand the time, resources, and user-involvement requirements before starting to design an app will help sustain commitment (see the step-by-step guide).
  3. Be prepared and get your users on board:  Like many applications, EVAW apps require investments to maintain complex backend systems and websites. Allow time to conduct in-depth research into potential providers of these services and the exact costs associated with them. Often there are hidden costs. Also, if an app is driven by content that needs to be updated regularly, ensure reliable systems are in place to do so. It is important to note that apps for EVAW get downloaded and updated less frequently than the industry average, and some very rarely (See Summary Report). If your goal is to assist an organization or an individual activist, it is critical that they understand, trust, and buy into the process and the time requirements involved.
  4. Other solutions may already exist: Examine existing apps to see if anything resembling your solution already exists (see App Inventory), or if it would be possible to adapt what already exists rather than creating a whole new app. If a particular app does not yet exist, could an existing app or intervention be adapted to serve that function?
  5. The app may become a challenge unto itself: “Given the speed with which these technologies are developing, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is little evidence regarding their effectiveness”STATT Report (2014). The most complex design challenge is likely to be promotion and sustainability of the apps themselves. The more specific the app is for EVAW or a subset of users, the more challenging the app will be to get sufficient uptake to sustain the app moving forward.

Ending violence against women in Cambodia is both crucial and complex, and requires a multipronged approach. While technology solutions alone won’t solve the problem, we can significantly lower the barriers to bring mobile technology closer to the front lines for those who are combatting violence against women.

Setha Rath is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Cambodia office. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful and useful article. This was another example of TAF teaching people how to fish.

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