Using Technology to Prevent Violence Against Women
Podcast Interview with Mariam Torosyan, CEO & Co-Founder of SafeYou
The full recording of the interview (English language) is now available at these links:
Narine: Hello Mariam, Welcome to HyeTech Minds. How’re you doing? How’s it in Yerevan?
Mariam: Hi dear Narine. Thank you for the invitation to your podcast. Everything is going fine in Yerevan, especially the weather.
Narine: Most importantly, the weather is getting nice.
Mariam, you have such an interesting career pathway. You’re like a superwoman. You’re into social anthropology, law, and public health. On top of this, you’re an entrepreneur. I’m really curious to learn more about you. How did you go from law and anthropology to entrepreneurship?
Mariam: In the beginning, I was passionate about law, especially constitutional law and human rights. And then very interestingly, when I was doing my Master’s degree, I got interested in anthropology. I understood that in many cases, the implementation of laws coming from, let’s say, from other cultures, or from other systems or structures, they face some differences, difficulties in other societies, and they got passionated, about legal anthropology and to do legal anthropology, of course, you have to start from social-cultural anthropology. And I went to Switzerland to start my Ph.D. research there and became a research associate at one of the topology Institutes there. That’s how it started. Also, I got very much interested in public health and public health law as something that I’m also teaching at the university.
So the three main things are in my background, law, social, anthropology, and public health. But as to social entrepreneurship, and innovation is something that I was doing, especially for the innovative innovation industry, I was engaged in that startup ecosystem in Armenia for already five years. And then I understood what I want to do with this innovation, so I want to use all my background and become a social entrepreneur who could use innovation for social good.
Narine: That’s really fascinating. So, in 2019, you launched this incredibly important mobile you take us to the beginning of the story of how you got motivated to work in this industry and launch SafeYou? an app called SafeYou that helps women in the battle against violence.
Mariam: We started our journey back in 2018, within Enterprise Incubator Foundation. The idea itself was incubated within EIF when we won an award of World Bank group’s and sexual violence Research Initiative, the award for tackling innovation, gender-based violence, and that was our main mission to understand how it can work.
Narine: Mariam, is it already in the market, or is it just a prototype? Narine: That’s awesome. Mariam, WHO report indicates that globally about For me, as a woman this is a terrifying number to see. I wonder how exactly SafeYou helps women to be more protective against violence? What is SafeYou about and how exactly it helps women to be more protective against violence? Narine: So you said SafeYou creates a virtual safe space for women and assists women in three particular ways: prevention, protection, and prosecution of gender-based violence. How exactly does this work? What are some of the functionalities of this app? 1 in 3, or 30%, of women, have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or non-partner. Narine: I think there is a lot to unpack. Let’s start with the “Help Button.” You said when a user presses the Help Button, the alert is sent to up to seven messages to pre-chosen contacts. How does contact selection work? Narine: You also said that the alert can go to the police station, is that correct? I assume that you should have some agreement with local police stations to engage them? Also, different countries probably have different systems in a police operation. How do you address all those changes?
Yes, we started with the World Bank Group. It was a research project also to understand what kind of solutions and how the innovation itself can help in fighting against gender-based violence. So we started there. In 2019, we decided to create a solution at least a prototype of a solution that went live in 2020. And when the project was over, we decided that we have to continue and come up with a real solution that can go to market and do its job. That’s our journey.
Mariam: No, it’s already a product. It’s available both in Google Play and App Store, at the moment available only in Armenia and Georgia, because we provide all the services here with more than 5000 users.
Narine: Ok, if you’re saying that SafeYou offers a solution to use nicknames. Now, this question comes to my mind. If I use a nickname, how will the police or my contacts be able to identify me and help me? Wouldn’t be this a problem?
Mariam: The concept of our solution is to provide both services to service providers and to engage all stakeholders, civil society organizations, international organizations, and governments to join efforts and fight against gender-based violence. And most importantly, what SafeYou's mobile app does is the creation of a virtual safe space for women that can assist in three ways prevention, protection, and prosecution of gender-based violence. But also, it seeks to raise awareness and empower women through community. So it’s a community-based innovation.
Narine: That’s smart. Another feature I want to bring up is evidence collection. You know this better: in most cases, abusers do not get prosecuted due to the lack of evidence. Many legal proceedings may require survivors of abuse to provide a judge with evidence of abuse. But this is really very difficult to get. Sometimes, survivors even do not report the abuse the right way. You said that SafeYou also offers a recording solution. Can you unpack how exactly it helps to collect the data and register the abuse?
Mariam: So it has three main functions. The first and most important function is the Help button. that sends up to seven alert messages to pre-chosen contacts; up to three contacts from your contact list that we call them, family and friends, and up to three contacts from the service providers, NGOs, or other organizations or individuals who are in our network. And the police, you can either enable the police button or disable it.
When you are in danger, for example, you’re attacked in the street or it’s a case of domestic violence, you just need to take your mobile device and press on that green button. And the other messages will be sent to these directions with your geolocation with your name, surname, and your mobile number. And because we don’t charge for SMS service, all functions, everything in this app is free of charge. This is the most important part, but it is also linked to our automatic audio recording, which starts to record what is happening around you, which can later be used as evidence in the prosecution process. This is the most important part.
Narine: Mariam, there’s another problem to be detected by abusers. Some abusers can be very smart. They are very attentive to their partner’s phones, computers. Sometimes they might even spy on their partners. I can imagine how dangers would be for those women if their partner detects they use an app to record them or report to the police. How do you handle this concern? Is there any way to hide this app on the phone, or at least make it invisible to others? That’s super impactful. I hope the app can help many more women who are at this moment getting abused or continue living in abusive families but are afraid to report.
The second is the network. It’s a consolidation of all available resources that are used in different ways to support women, like NGOs, human rights defender offices, or other initiatives or individuals. So it’s an easily navigable database.
Narine: Mariam, what about the limitations of the app? Any additional development is planned?
And the third function is the most engaging function. That’s why women come and use our app because they can get free consultations, they can engage in peer-to-peer discussions, there other kinds of discussion rooms where women discuss different urgent topics created by our partner organizations. And also we have professionals there that are identifiable by a verification badge. So all other users use their nicknames to remain anonymous, while we also provide professionals in the discussion rooms. Well, we have a lot of other functions as well, but these three are the main functions to assist in the prevention, protection, and prosecution of violence against women.
Narine: Seems we’re in the 21st century and we should not have problems getting access to the Internet. But there is still a huge disproportion in Internet usage among countries and even regions. You think this is only a problem for developing countries. This problem should be on the top of the agenda of policymakers. So, Mariam, you mentioned that SafeYou now is available only in Armenia and Georgia. Do you have any plans to extend the application to other countries? Any plans to come to the U.S. market?
Mariam: First you choose them in the support section, when you first download the app, it suggests you choose your emergency contacts, but you always have that list available. So you can always add and change contacts. And at the moment, we still don’t have this technology that can understand itself. We don’t have this AI built yet that will understand who are the nearby friends or nearby organizations, but we also need to have the consent of our users.
Mariam: Well, it depends on agreement with the police, for example, in countries like Armenia and Georgia, it was really very easy to get an agreement with the police. For example, in Armenia, there is a specific patrol system, which may be different, for example, from what we have in the United States. It’s centralized in Armenia. And when they get the alert, they immediately send the alert through their system to the nearest patrol car. What is happening also depends on how the police operate, and what is the system in a specific country. That’s how it works with the police. But we also are planning to create some portals for police that can be in any country. It will be easy to use that system already designed and developed by our organization.
Narine: That’s super exciting. I’m very positive SafeYou has a very bright future. Talking about the future, can you share some of your perspectives on the app?
Mariam: So first, and the most strategic thing that we’re doing right now is we’re going open source with our app to make sure that our code is secure, and everyone can see it and to also continuously improve the security and privacy measures. But also have very strict privacy policies and very restricted access to restricted access to any information in our databases. But also what is important is that nobody can see the real name and surname of the user, but only the nickname, which hides the identity of the user. The only case where the user shares her name, and surname is when she presses the “Help Button.” And it goes with her consent to her contacts. And again, the system doesn’t track this name surname in that case, either.
Narine: I think this is something the government should be partnering over. It’s very important for policymakers to have accurate data on the situation. Talking about the data, what type of data can you collect and can make available for policymakers?
Mariam: Well in our promotional strategy we emphasize this part of what we always tell our potential users, and we suggest them to put their real name and surname, and then they have a space for nickname and then we explain to them that all other users they see only your nickname, while your emergency court tags will see your real name and surname. But in any case, even if we fail here, she still puts a wrong name and surname. The most important information is a mobile number. When you send the alert message, they see your mobile number and they see where you are at the moment and they see that you are in danger. So it doesn’t matter what your name is, usually, they react. I mean, service providers and police will react for sure. There is a difference for your personal contacts because if they don’t understand who is applying, they might not understand from what this message came. But again, here the telephone number is going to save the situation.
Narine: What if there is a complicated case and the judge orders to provide all the data available in the SafeYou app about the user. What do you do in this case?
Mariam: As I already said, our help function has two main functions, it sends an alert message; it also enables automatic audio recording, that is recording what is happening around this woman in that situation. And we have a success story already. This one function, the help function, already saved two lives: the life of a woman and her three-year-old daughter. And it was possible. Also, because of our partners in Georgia, we’re promoting the app, and we have a lot of users there. And this woman got attacked by her ex-husband who wanted to kill both of them, her daughter and her wife, but didn’t succeed because she could press the Help button, the police came immediately and arrested the guy. And what is important here is that this audio recording is now used as the deco art as pivotal evidence for the case, which means that if for example, not that recording, they will not know that this is an attempt of murder, and not just an attack at the street, which means that of course, the penalty will be much stricter, if we didn’t have this recording, it would not even be considered maybe as a crime.
Narine: Mariam I think this app is really very important not only for women, just in general to secure your safety. You never know when the trouble comes around. So how can users learn more about SafeYou or download in case they want?
So in this case, we believe that this recording is even not because it is saved in your audio recordings within the app in the player. And you can either delete it if you don’t want to prosecute, or you can save it for later use, or you can use it immediately. So we give all options to our users who don’t send this immediately because it can also be a little bit not uncomfortable for our users to use. But we believe that this function can be very helpful in proceedings just because of the fact that there’s always evidence, especially in cases of domestic violence, where they are alone, there is no there are no witnesses of the case, to tell what happened in reality.
Narine: Thank you so much Mariam Jan for this sincere conversation. You have a very important mission to carry out. ANd I’m glad we had the chance to talk about SafeYou and give voice to this issue of violence against women. And we need to increase awareness about the violence against women as much as we can possible. And thank you for putting your time to create a technology solution for women to be more protective. So wishing you good luck with all your initiatives. Stay safe, and hope to talk to you soon.
Mariam: Narine, thank you for this question. It’s really a very important issue that was very challenging for us. During the development of the app, during our research, we met a lot of women who had actually the same problem as you, you just described control.
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We have two layers of security to hide the app, first of all, to hide the app in the menu screen so that nobody can see that you’re using SafeYou. And secondly, hiding the app even if it’s discovered, imagine that we failed and the app is discovered, even though it’s hidden, but still discovered. There is an additional second layer of hiding the true nature of the app. So I don’t want to disclose all the information. I will just say by some prick, you can just hide even the true function of the app from others and from the abuser.
Mariam: Maybe the biggest limitation is the Internet. So you need to have the Internet in your, in your cellular data to be able to use this application. This is something that can be solved, alright. Also, we can always negotiate and either buy or provide for free of charge, zero rates for the app so that our users don’t need mobile data or internet data to use the application. And second, again, we’re talking about developing countries, where there is also a digital divide, and women don’t have access to mobile devices. That’s another limitation for us. But there is some good news that Chinese and Indian smartphones they’re getting cheaper and cheaper every year, and, of course, more affordable. So we think that this limitation is not going to be that huge in the near future.
Mariam: The United States, remains very interesting for us as, as a country, because there are so many procedures, so many laws, and policies supporting the battle against gender-based violence against women. And we think that a country like us can become a role model for us to also understand what kind of grown-up policy changes we’re going to also why not suggest to other countries because we’re going to see how the app works in different contexts. And we’re going to also make, of course, suggestions based on data analysis, and based also on comparative analysis, how it works in different countries. And I think having a country like us, in our platform, will greatly help other countries just because of the experience lows and supporting because they support this cause.
At the moment, we are actively negotiating, let’s say, with three other countries. For example, just yesterday, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the biggest NGO in Zimbabwe, that wants to be a pioneer of this app in their country. And now we are discovering funding opportunities for them, which is very interesting to also go to Africa. Well, there are also some developed countries, of course, or wood that are interested and we’re working with them. And hopefully, by the end of this year, we will be available in three more countries. And the US is still in our plans. And we already started discovering how we should enter our marketplace.
Mariam: The future goal for SafeYou is, of course, improving the technology and getting to the point where we can have very decent data analyzing the system to provide real-time data and analysis to policymakers, civil society organizations to base their problems and policies on real-time data, which is again challenging nowadays. For example, the data that we’re going to provide is going to be specific for different things, like I mean, it can be district-specific or country or region-specific, which is very important for policymakers and for NGOs to optimize their solutions. But also, after having the critical amount of data, of course, we will have some AI assistance, again, for governments and civil society organizations who can use it for, again for increasing efficiency and productivity of their fight against violence against women.
Mariam: Sure, and also something very important that we’re going to use only personally non-identifiable data. So metadata is going to be used and not used against, but for, for our users for our for women, which is very important also, for us to create human-centered algorithms and a code that can be helpful for the society and have a social impact and not just being concentrated on some commercial issues.
Mariam: Well this kind of case may occur, especially if we’re talking about crimes, or in cases, if we miss someone, for example, the woman disappeared, for example, and they’re searching to understand where she is, or it was a murder. I mean there can be cases like this. And if they figure out that she was a huge user of safe you this information can be helpful for the prosecution process. And yes, if the law of the country is, I mean, it’s legal to provide, we have to provide them. That’s why we also created this solution to help in this legal proceeding.
Mariam: Users from Armenia and Georgia should go to their Google Play and App Store and just write down SafeYou and download the app. And also there is a tutorial screen. When you download it shows how to navigate into the app. There are also social media links on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can always follow our social media links. Or if you have any questions, I’m also everywhere on Twitter and Facebook available to questions.
Mariam: thank you very much for inviting Narine, Jen, and thank you for covering this important topic within your podcast. Stay safe