SafeYOU, an Armenian app, is taking on gender-based violence around the world
December 9, 2022
Two years ago, Mariam Torosyan, a human rights lawyer and social entrepreneur, founded SafeYOU, a social impact startup, in a bid to curb domestic and gender-based violence by supporting women who have experienced or are experiencing abuse.
The mobile app and platform addresses gender-based violence through protection, prevention and prosecution of cases.
The increase of reported domestic violence during Covid-19 accelerated the social enterprise’s journey – first launching in Armenia in early 2020, where 60 percent of Armenian women have experienced domestic violence at least once. The app was thereafter launched in Georgia, where imposed Covid-19 restrictions limited access to life-saving support services.
With plans to expand to Arab states and Africa, the app now has more than 25,000 users across three countries – Armenia, Georgia and Iraq, with 60,000 women already using the SafeYOU platform.
‘Protect, prosecute, prevent’
Just a tap away, SafeYOU provides access to knowledge resources on sexual health and women’s rights, existing support services, community support, and consultations with different organizations and professionals. “Technology has the power to connect the dots that were not connected [...] bringing all the resources into one place,” explains Mariam.
Central to the app’s safety function is the HELP button, which sends up to seven free SMS alerts, which can include personal contacts, service providers (such as women support organizations and state authorities) or the police. “In cases of gender-based violence, especially domestic violence, the victim and the abuser are alone. And in many contexts, it's really very difficult to prove that there was [physical or sexual] violence and there was no consent.” That’s why once the emergency button is activated – an audio recording starts.
In one of its most emblematic cases so far, a 26-year-old mother downloaded the SafeYOU mobile app in Georgia, after having received death threats from her former husband. When she and her three-year-old were attacked by him several days later, she was able to activate the SOS button and alert the police, who arrived quickly to the scene and arrested him. “The audio recording that was gathered by SafeYOU was later used and accepted by the court as a pivotal piece of evidence,” notes Mariam.
Until now, more than 14,000 women have reported cases through the platform and over 8,000 women have used its network of psychologists, lawyers and healthcare workers. The app is especially valuable for women living in more remote areas and unable to travel to access services and consultations.
Nevertheless, access to digital technology is not always evenly distributed and can depend on rurality and digital infrastructure issues including connectivity and broadband speeds, access to digital devices, disability and digital literacy.
“We are [also] currently developing a follow-up and feedback system to understand whether users received help or not.” This is crucial, Mariam tells us, because currently nearly 60 percent of cases on the app are not reported to NGOs or the police, which means women cannot receive the support they need and the magnitude of the problem remains hidden.
Data as an engine for change
Only 41 percent of countries regularly collect data on violence against women, which means that effective policies cannot be created to combat the problem.
SafeYOU’s strategy is also based on a platform and data analysis system. The app collects anonymous and confidential data, which the platform then analyzes to provide a unique live monitoring tool to track and prevent cases of gender-based violence.
“The data gathered through AI algorithms is really something invaluable not only for policymakers, but also for NGOs, to understand what is needed and what are the trends,” explains Mariam. The data allows policy-makers, lawyers and activists to understand how many cases there are, whether they were reported and to whom, as well as background information on those that reported – from age groups to geography.
“Analyzing the patterns can help us understand who is at the highest and lowest risk to be abused among our users, and how we can make sure that we prevent these cases,” says Mariam.
In Armenia, they’ve already made several important recommendations to governments and nonprofit organizations on how to ensure that women report cases officially, not only to family and friends.
Going global, but staying local
SafeYOU was among 55 changemakers selected to take part in the UNDP-led BOOST: Women Innovators acceleration programme and has worked to further scale their app. They’re also currently enrolled in Google for Startups SDG program and are a winner of multiple awards from the EU, World Bank Group, UNFPA, and the Government of Armenia.
Supporting eight languages, including Armenian, Georgian, English, Arabic and Russian, the app is completely free for users. Instead, SafeYOU’s business model targets governments, nonprofits or international organizations interested in innovative approaches to addressing gender-based violence. For example, in Iraq, SafeYOU partnered with the United Nations Population Fund, Ministry of Interior in the Kurdistan Regional Government and the General Directorate of Combatting Violence against Women and Families to launch the app in the Kurdistan region.
In each context, the team adapts the app together with its partners, depending on local needs and specifications. They may add or hide features – for example, they may deactivate the police alert function due to lack of capacity to negotiate with them, and so may rely on third parties such as nonprofits to review and refer cases to the police.
Its user-centric approach means that the app’s functions are rooted in research and interviews with women – from women in shelters to human rights lawyers focused on women's rights – which has helped the SafeYOU team “create a highly adaptive technology,” says Mariam. Localizing the app requires adapting its interface and functionality depending on different contexts, cultures and needs, continuously improving the user journey within the app over its 80 releases.
Since 2021, SafeYOu is considered a Digital public goods, i.e. an open-source software that adheres to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, ‘do no harm’ design, and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.
SafeYOU is looking to expand to countries and regions where there are higher prevalence rates of gender-based violence. “This is the best market to be because that's where we can really bring bigger change, because the gaps in those countries are much bigger.” As is the impact.
When asked about her advice to other women innovators, Mariam says: “Be unstoppable [...] You must find your inner power and say: ‘I can do it and I am going to do it, because the world needs someone to do this. And I'm the person who must do it.’”
BOOST is a regional acceleration programme for sustainable impact innovation, powered by UNDP Europe and Central Asia. Initially launched in 2020 in response to the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, BOOST seeks to boost social innovators across the region to accelerate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its Women Innovators programme, financed and supported by the Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic and Koç Holding, is about developing innovative solutions that tackle key challenges faced by women and girls or are powering the women-led entrepreneurial ecosystem across the region.