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Smartphones and domestic violence: Free phones and safety planning give hope to survivors

Safe Connections program has helped 36,000 women and children receive free devices

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Providing smartphones and other support to survivors of domestic and gender-based violence was the focus of an online event held this week during the 67th Commission on the Status of Women (#CSW67).

The parallel event highlighted the Australia-based Safe Connections program, which provides free cell phones to survivors who might not otherwise be able to afford a phone, or can’t use their original one for some reason, such as it being compromised by a perpetrator.

New phones are given because “the reliability of that phone is absolutely paramount,” said Karen Bentley, chief executive officer of the Women’s Services Network (WESNET) in Australia, who co-led the presentation. “It may literally be the difference between whether or not she reaches help and can call for help.”

The 4G phones are donated by Telstra, Australia’s leading telecommunication and technology company, and distributed throughout Australia through various agencies, Bentley said. Staff from those agencies receive training that helps them get up to speed about smartphone-related tech abuse by perpetrators and how to thwart it.

The two main objectives of Smart Connections are to provide survivors with the means to connect with personal and professional sources of support to reduce “isolation and to empower her to disrupt and interrupt abusive patterns of power and control by giving her the knowledge, information and support to use technology in ways that support her safety,” Bentley said.

The subject aligns with the priority theme of #CSW67: “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” Within that umbrella, women’s safety in the digital world has been a common subject during #CSW67, and prevention of domestic and gender-based violence has been lifted up by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over the years through participation in campaigns such as Thursdays in Black.

Bentley and fellow co-presenter Joanna Colautti, a technology safety specialist for WESNET, provided an overview of Smart Connections and talked about some of the ways perpetrators have been known to use cellphones in general to commit abuse. Examples of that abuse include destroying and limiting access to phones; changing a person’s passwords or login details; sending unwanted or threatening calls, texts and audio messages; and using “stalkerware” to track the person’s location.

A screenshot taken during the event explained what technology-based abuse can look like.

“This is why we wanted a program model that had women being given a phone in an environment where there’s also safety planning around the abuse as well, because it’s the safety planning in the Safe Connections program that actually makes the phone safe, not the device itself,” Colautti said. “So, this is really the purpose of the Safe Connections program: to provide that training, education and safety planning … in conjunction with giving out the actual device, which is the phone.”

So far, the program has provided about “36,000 women and children with a brand-new phone, so that’s between 400 and 600 phones going out to women every month,” Bentley said. “I think one of the key components that we’ve seen through the program is that it’s supporting women from marginalized groups,” including Aboriginal women and women who are immigrants, non-English speaking or who have a disability.

The phones, which come with a free SIM card with credit and data, allow survivors “to connect with personal and professional sources of support, reducing their isolation and keeping them connected,” Bentley said. The devices also help survivors to “disrupt and interrupt some of the abusive patterns of power and control that she might be experiencing.”

Telstra has a safe team that’s trained to answer calls and understand some of the dynamics of domestic and family violence. “They can ensure that when survivors’ details are updated that any device or account that they’re registering isn’t inadvertently or automatically linked to any previous account controlled by the perpetrator,” Colautti said.

Find additional information about tech safety on the website of the National Network to End Domestic Violence: The U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.

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