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  • Writer's pictureHeather D. Flowe, PhD

Transforming Access to Justice: Using Technology and a Novel Interview Approach to Empower Survivors

Sexual assault is a global issue, affecting millions of people every year. The traumatic experience of being sexually assaulted can have lasting effects on victim-survivors (hereafter, survivors), both physically and mentally. In many cases, the process of seeking justice can be a daunting and stressful experience, particularly when survivors are asked to recount the details of the assault to multiple investigators.

Encountering roadblocks in sexual assault investigations is especially likely in conflict settings, low-income countries, and during times of austerity when resources are limited for investigating and prosecuting crimes. However, even when there is evidence that corroborates the victim's account, myths and stereotypes about sexual assault victims can discourage legal officials from conducting an effective investigation.

To address these challenges, we collaborated with the Kenyan Survivors of Sexual Violence Network and the Wangu Kanja Foundatin to conduct a study on a mobile phone application called MobApp. The application was developed and is being used by members of the network, who are human rights defenders and have been trained in fundabental evidence-based interview principles to document offenses.

The study, led by Laura Stevens, aimed to test whether using MobApp could preserve memory accuracy over time and whether asking questions specifically about the offender's behavior during the crime could help investigators link him to other crimes and increase the amount and quality of information available for the investigation. The study was published as part of an open access special issue on Collaborative Community Approaches to Addressing Sexual Violence that was curated and edited by Dr. Jaimee Mallon and Professor Erika Gebo.

Our findings showed that memory accuracy one week later was higher for those who were immediately interviewed using the application compared to those who did not use it. The results were consistent for both users of MobApp and those who used the enhanced version of the application that had questions about the offender's behavior. Additionally, while memory accuracy declined over the one-week period for those who were not interviewed with MobApp, accuracy was maintained for those who were interviewed with the mobile application.

The application enables human rights defenders to conduct interviews with survivors in a safe and secure manner. The app's design ensures that the interview process is standardized, and the questions are asked in an evidence-based manner. This approach can help reduce the risk of re-traumatizing survivors by minimizing the need to recount the assault multiple times. Additionally, the use of the application can increase the amount and quality of information available for the investigation, potentially leading to more successful prosecutions.

The study's findings on memory accuracy are particularly important because memory accuracy is crucial for successful prosecutions. Sexual assault cases often rely heavily on the victim's testimony, and memory accuracy can make or break a case. Immediate interviews using the application can help preserve memory accuracy and increase the chances of a successful prosecution. The results suggest that the use of MobApp could be a game-changer in contexts where crimes are reported to the police after a delay. Immediate interviews using the application can help to maintain memory accuracy and potentially increase the chances of bringing the perpetrator to justice.

The benefits of MobApp extend beyond preserving memory accuracy, as it can also lead to survivors receiving vital services and justice more quickly, without having to wait for extended periods of time for an interview. The application's potential is especially important in settings where resources are already stretched thin, and immediate interviews may not always be possible.

Importantly, MobApp and other GBVxTech must be integrated into existing services and structures that support sexual assault survivors.

Survivors often need a range of support services, such as medical care, counseling, legal advice, and access to emergency accommodation. By integrating reporting apps into existing support structures, survivors can more easily access these services and receive the holistic care they need.

Integrating GBVxTech into existing structures can help ensure that the reports are handled appropriately and professionally. For example, linking reporting apps to law enforcement agencies can help ensure that reports are handled sensitively, and that evidence is properly collected and preserved. Further, not everyone can access applications and the Internet, so it is important other reporting options are available and robust, as well as to work to address the digital divide, which is gendered.

It can also help improve data collection and analysis on sexual assault, which can in turn inform policy and advocacy efforts. By collecting data on where and when sexual assaults occur, as well as the characteristics of survivors and perpetrators, policymakers and advocates can better understand the scope and nature of the problem and develop more effective prevention and response strategies.

The use of technology to address sexual assault is not without its challenges. There are concerns to address about the privacy and security of the information collected through the application. Additionally, not all survivors may have access to mobile phones or have the necessary literacy skills to use the application effectively. These challenges highlight the importance of designing technology solutions that are inclusive and accessible.

Involving survivors and other stakeholders in the development and implementation of technology solutions for sexual assault is crucial for several reasons. First, survivors are the experts in their own experiences and needs, and their input is invaluable in creating solutions that are effective and responsive to their needs. Second, involving survivors and other stakeholders in the design process can help ensure that the technology is sensitive to their concerns and does not retraumatize them.

It is important to recognize that the development and use of GBVxTech can be a sensitive and emotionally charged issue, and involving survivors in the development process can help ensure that their voices are heard, and their needs are met. GBVxTech refers to the use of technology, such as applications and websites, like MobApp, to provide survivors with access to information, support, and resources to report instances of GBV, seek help, and connect with service providers.

In addition to involving survivors and other stakeholders in the development process, it is important to have robust data protection and privacy policies in place to ensure that survivors' information is kept secure and confidential. Survivors who report sexual assault are often concerned about their privacy and the confidentiality of their information. They may fear retaliation or stigmatization if their identity or personal information is revealed. It is therefore critical to have strong data protection and privacy policies in place that safeguard survivors' personal information and prevent unauthorized access.

Technology solutions should use encryption and other security measures to protect data at rest and in transit. Access to the data should be restricted to authorized personnel only, and there should be clear protocols for responding to data breaches or unauthorized access. It is also important to provide survivors with clear information about how their information will be used and who will have access to it.

Finally, evidence-based principles that have been developed for face-to-face and written interviews should be incorporated into apps to support memory retrieval and ensure that the victim's account is accurate and reliable.

By addressing these challenges and working towards inclusive technology solutions, we can harness the power of technology to improve the lives of survivors of sexual assault and create a safer world for all. Technology has the potential to transform the way sexual assault is investigated and prosecuted, making the process more efficient, effective, and survivor-centered. However, to realize this potential, we must ensure that technology solutions are designed with survivors' needs and concerns in mind and that data protection and privacy policies are robust and effective.

With the right approach, technology can be a powerful tool in the fight against sexual assault and the promotion of justice and equality. As technology continues to evolve, it is essential to explore innovative solutions to address the challenges faced by survivors of sexual assault. MobApp is one example of how technology can be used to improve the justice system's response to sexual assault and support survivors.

Our study's promising results provide hope that innovative approaches to investigating crimes can make a significant difference in the fight against sexual assault. By preserving memory accuracy, survivors can feel more empowered and supported in their pursuit of justice. This is especially important in contexts where sexual assault survivors face significant obstacles in reporting the crime and seeking justice.


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