Saahas: How we built an app to enable survivors of gender-based violence connect to help near them

A friend had just moved to the United Kingdom about a year ago. This was right after her wedding. One night, she left me sixteen messages on WhatsApp, asking for help.

She was stuck in an abusive relationship without a way out. Her husband often monitored her phone and laptop and even locked her in the house whenever he left. Usually, he beat her more when she cried for mercy. Many nights she went to bed hungry because he wouldn’t let her eat.

I later learned that she had been putting up with the abuse for a whole year. She couldn’t even Google the nearest shelter or emergency support services because it would mean that he could trace her.

After sending me the messages, she took out her SIM Card, destroyed it, left her phone behind, and managed to escape from the house. She made her way to the closest railway station and spent a whole day switching trains. As she wasn't a citizen of the country yet, she wasn’t aware of what rights she had on foreign soil. She eventually gathered enough courage to call her parents in India to ask for help. The parents then contacted a shelter where she could be taken care of until her father brought her back to India. She now lives in India and proceedings for her divorce are ongoing.

Her story rocked me to my core. She put all her trust in me and reached out but I was asleep. This got me thinking about the countless other women who, just like her try looking for help over seas simply because they can't or don’t know how to find help locally. I knew I wanted to do something about it.

To understand the factors that could hinder a woman’s access to crisis response, I spent a few weeks talking to women. I got a few common answers: lack of money, awareness, knowledge of a foreign language if they were in a different country. Then came the ones that were hard to digest: one survivor was afraid to Google help as it left traces on the browser history – and she worried she would forget to erase the entries in her nervousness.

Another survivor revealed to me her previous partner had installed spyware in her system – and she had no clue since it was so inconspicuous.

An aid worker volunteer said that fear came from being unable to verify the authenticity of a care provider – given that many organizations are forced to cut down on intakes, services, or programs, or even close down, for want of funds.

I had kicked the hornet’s nest. I was dealing with something that was so huge, it was no exaggeration to say that the nuances had nuances. I spent restless hours brainstorming the many dimensions to fill the gap between the services that are available and victims in need of those services.

And somewhere in the process of putting that together, it was apparent that only a few women would access the platform on a computer and more of them would use phones. So how would I get this across to them again? Through an app, of course. A few coders came forward to volunteer their services, but however well-meaning, time was of the essence and they didn’t have enough to spare. A corporate house agreed to get on board, but like a relationship where the partners lapse into silence and walk their ways one fine day, that bond splintered.

Then, I decided I would learn to code and do it myself. I wanted to this so badly, and I was willing to learn to code from scratch. With time not in my favour, I turned to a brilliant course on Coursera called “CODAPPS: MobileCoding for Entrepreneurs.”

It made me cry, it drove me furiously mad because I just wasn’t getting it. I’m always analytical and cause-effect in my thinking, but being one to work with emotions, situations and real people, I wasn’t fluent in machine.

When I realized that coding from scratch was not going to get me there as quickly, that I was terribly rough around the edges, and that while I decided I would code, I could also rely on what they call “SDK” in the coding world – i.e., software development kits. I learned about them on the course and found this brilliant website called AppyPie. These blocks of pre-coded technology help you rely on several functionalities to put the choicest features together to build your app. It was smooth sailing, easy to understand and also gave me the flexibility to visualize things as I built it. Now, the app is ready and sitting in the Google Play Store as Saahas, and is on its way to making its presence on the Apple's App Store as well.




TheRedElephant

TheRedElephant

youth-led initiative based out of India using storytelling, dialogue-building, training and tech for peace & gender equality