KAMPALA —A young student was groped and raped at night in her home in Uganda in 2017.
Too ashamed to leave her house and face her neighbors who knew about the assault, she stayed in her home for several weeks until her friends took her to a hospital, where she discovered that she had contracted HIV and was pregnant.
The young student had a smartphone and several mobile applications yet was unsure, like many other victims of gender-based violence (GBV), of where to go for assistance and which providers offer free services.
Terrydon Wamboga, who counseled the victim when he worked as a youth counselor at Naguru Youth Health Network, was inspired by that experience to create a mobile phone app with fellow social worker, Arafat Kabugo.
Arafat and Terrydon decided to bring together all the providers that offer free services on one mobile app to make it easier for victims and survivors of GBV in Uganda to determine where to go for help.
And they had help from USAID to make it happen.
The ResilientAfrica Network (RAN), a development lab established by USAID and based at Makerere University in Uganda, held a hackathon with UN Women in 2018 focused on gathering digital solutions to gender-based violence.
RAN encourages and supports locally led innovative solutions to development challenges and regularly hosts events — including hackathons, pitch sessions, and innovation “garages” — that provide space and mentoring for innovators to help them refine and scale-up their ideas.
The hackathon connected innovators Terrydon and Arafat to RAN. They successfully showcased their innovation called Centres4Her, a mobile phone application that provides information on confidential and immediate GBV prevention and response services in the geographic area of its users.
Service providers that offer free assistance for GBV survivors are listed on Centres4Her. Enabling the GPS function on the mobile phone application allows users to view services in their immediate area and get directions to each provider.
“Users have access to multiple options if they are confronted with violence…,” says Terrydon. “They know which police station to go to, which health center they can go to, and which legal organization offers free services to help see that the perpetrator is punished. If they suffer from depression as a result of the violence, they would know where to go for counseling.”
The Centres4Her mobile app allows viewers to see nearby gender-based violence service centers. The app also lists categories of services available and specific locations that offer free services. / Courtesy of Centres4Her
In Uganda, incidents of gender-based violence remain high despite laws and policies to prevent and protect victims and survivors. In 2016, one survey reported that 51 percent of women ages 15 to 49 experienced physical violence at least once since age 15.
Twenty-two percent of women in the same age group also stated that they had experienced some form of sexual violence.
The recent pandemic lockdowns further exacerbated this issue; the number of reported cases of GBV increased in Uganda and around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Centres4Her app has mapped most of the service providers in Kampala metropolitan area, which consists of the city proper and the neighboring Wakiso District, Mukono District, Mpigi District, Buikwe District, and Luweero District. It uses a color coded system to facilitate ease of access and use for counseling, family planning, health centers, HIV/AIDS care, legal services, police stations, reproductive health services, and shelters.
The mobile app has a call button that connects users to a GBV violence hotline for men, transgender individuals, women, girls, and boys. It also has a button for WhatsApp, a text and voice messaging app, that allows users to message the Centres4Her mobile app team. With mentorship from RAN, a prototype of the application was piloted in the Gulu District of Uganda in both a rural and an urban community in October 2018. Feedback from girls and women who used the prototype was overwhelmingly positive and the innovators used their experiences with the prototype to improve the design.
The Centres4Her app was then piloted at Makerere University and added to the Google Play store in October 2019.
What’s next for Centres4Her? At the request of users, a function to reach out to service providers via email will be added.
Arafat cites the restrictions of COVID-19 as an obstacle in helping victims and survivors of GBV get to the services that they need, so ambulance services and more service providers will be added. They are working to have the app added to the App Store for iOS products and a web version. There also are plans to map all of the service providers in Uganda to add to the Centres4Her app.
Ultimately, says Terrydon: “Our goal is to end GBV against women and girls.”
GBV is a violation of human rights that occurs far too often, and it remains a public health challenge and a barrier to civic, social, political, educational, and economic participation of individuals worldwide. Tapping into the innovation and passion found at higher education institutions like Makerere University is making a measurable difference on this important issue.