Chayn is a crowdsourced online platform empowering women facing domestic abuse to fight back.
by Aisiri Amin
Chelsea tried to leave her abusive, drug-addict boyfriend three times in their four years of relationship. When he hit her, the 19-year-old would be too scared to report it to the police because of the involvement of drugs. Instead, she would go to her local doctor who just handed her an information leaflet. Until one day, she decided enough was enough and while her boyfriend was out to buy groceries, she used the 15-minute window to pack her bag and leave.
She went to a refugee register and told her story to a case officer, a much older woman, who didn’t speak English like most people there. Feeling emotionally fragile, she was desperate for some help. No Wi-fi access, no proper help, left her feeling helpless and seeing no other option she ended up going back to her violent boyfriend. And so, the cycle continued.
This one of the stories from ‘experience maps’ designed by the project Tech vs Abuse, a project that four organisations including Chayn, an open-source platform that aims to help and empower women in vulnerable situations, have been working on to figure out how technology can help people experiencing domestic violence.
For people trapped in an abusive environment, they get only a few minutes to make life changing decisions and it’s the support and information they get during that time which determines their course of action.
But often, even when they reach out for help, the complicated process of getting information leaves them exhausted and feeling helpless.
“It took me 15 clicks to find the information on a local refuge. If you only have five minutes alone, that’s at least ten clicks too many,” a domestic violence survivor told Chayn.
So what they need to break the cycle is quick, specific, and helpful information instead of the lengthy process that they come across in support portals. And that’s what Chayn has been trying to do.
Through their chatbot, Little Window, which pops up as soon as someone goes on the site for help, the visitor get answers to specific questions. They also build crowdsourced guides such as “How to build your own domestic violence case without a lawyer” and Soul Medicine, a multi-lingual learning platform delivering micro-courses for women experiences abuse, with a focus on migrant and refugee women.
Founder of Chayn, Hera Hussain who was born in Glasgow, raised in Pakistan and living in the UK was very young when became aware of the structural barriers that harm women every day. Even though she was raised in a happy family, for her, it became clearer as the years went by that all families weren’t the same.
“I was aware that back in my home in Pakistan, up to 80 percent of women can experience abuse but I was shocked to see that the situation was quite bleak in the UK too. Misogyny was universal.”
Chayn happened after Hera went through a challenging personal experience of helping her two friends escape their abusive marriages. When the then 23-year-old realised that finding basic but important information for supporting people affected by domestic abuse is a cumbersome process, she knew it was something that had to change.
Being a technologist herself, she knew that if she wanted to provide quick support to more women, it had to be through technology.
“As the gender gap in accessing the Internet and technology decreases, women are carving their own place as both creators and ardent consumers of technology.”
Moreover, it is also the easiest form of communication and education, she says. “There are endless possibilities to how we can use simple and appropriate technology to enable women to become creators of their own fate.”
And most importantly most women experiencing abuse have limited access to funds and their freedom is restricted so seeking help can be life-threating sometimes. “But they do have access to a smartphone, giving them a quick and safe way to get critical information and seek help without arousing suspicion.”
Talking about the platform, she says, “Chayn is a completely volunteer-led organisation that builds free and open-source guides and toolkits that are aimed to solve the critical information gaps that put women facing violence at risk globally.”
Chayn also emphasises on the importance of an intersectional approach is important in addressing and understanding gender-based violence because other forms of discrimination such as racism xenophobia, class struggle, ableism, and homophobia are connected to sexism.
Hera says, “In the beginning, we only concentrated on women facing violence. However, as we worked with more survivors, it became clear that we could not address gender-based violence without looking at how other oppressions interact with it.”
Keeping this in mind, last year launched the Supernova Project which focuses on addressing abuse within the LGBTQIA+. There is an acute shortage of resources for people in the LGBTQIA+ community who may be going through abuse.
“For many reasons, including fear of reprisals from their community and fear of being judged by mainstream domestic abuse services – they never come forward,” Hera says. Chayn Italia became the first one to tackle this matter with the help of their LGBTIQ+ activists.
The journey hasn’t been easy but it’s the spirit of the survivors that makes it all worth for them. For instance, when they launched the Chayn India website in 2014 they got a sign-up from a woman who wanted to volunteer.
“The woman’s response to a question in the form, “Why do you want to volunteer?” brought tears to my eyes,” Hera recounts. She had written that for two years she looked through different blogs to try to find out to divorce her husband. But they were all written by men — all talking about how women misuse the penal code.
“It was only when I came across Chayn that I learned what my rights are under the law. I feel so empowered. You have no idea how this makes me feel. I want to help other women feel the same way — others who are stuck in the same situation,” she wrote.
It’s experiences like these that reassure Hera that she is on the right path. But as some are taking leaps in the movement of making gender equality a reality, there are still barriers, primarily due to stagnant redundant stereotypes and mindsets.
But for a permanent solution, those need to change.. There is a dire need to wriggle out of the tight grasp of patriarchy and move away from a society that reduces women to a submissive counterpart of a man.
“Women are living under the burden of thousands of years of patriarchy and injustice that is deeply embedded in our societies. The mindset that women are public properties and don’t belong in any space independently as well as the perspective that they don’t have the right to agency is most the most pervasive undercurrent of our time.”
But the difficult question is: how do we change the way people think? Hera says, “Education, training, financial empowerment and legal equality are the benchmarks of a fair and feminist society. These are the problems that Chayn hopes to solve and work on to end violence against women.”
To begin with, we need to start challenging the harmful and rigid gender roles in our society that patriarchy thrives on. “A culture of slut-shaming and lack of awareness of consent can create rape myths that put women at a higher risk of sexual assault. Victim blaming stops many women from coming forward to even their own family and friends.”
And the most worrying part is that the misogyny is so internalised that many women overlook early signs of abuse, Hera says. “By myth-busting the signs of manipulation, using real-life stories to highlight abuse, or explicitly talking about what abuse can look like, we can start to smash the walls patriarchy creates around us.”
For her, Chayn’s achievement is that it is making women aware of the abuse, the basic laws to fight it and help them empower themselves in the process. “It gives us life to hear that we’re helping women all over the world with vital information that can help them to regain control of their lives, and live free of abuse.”
Many believe 2017 was seen as a big year for feminism. With the #MeToo campaign, it felt like a much-needed movement was starting. But often along with the adrenaline rush comes the skepticism that this will again be one of those sudden jolts that will soon be buried in archives.
For an international campaign to strive, they need to focus on intersectionality according to Hera. “They tend to offer a single narrative and can wash over the experiences of women who are not in a position of privilege. This is what needs to change. With Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, it feels like things are different so I have high hopes!”
The one thing these movements are shouting from the top of the roofs is that the narrative needs to change. It’s a long fight for everyone but we are in it together, for the better.
For all the women experiencing abuse, Hera says, “Know that you are not alone. What’s happening to you is NOT your fault.”
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).