The first thing that I learned on the Freedom Programme, was that you have to
know what domestic abuse is. If you grow up in a house where you are hit regularly
with a wooden spoon, slipper or belt, then, when you wet yourself, your pants
are rubbed in your face and you are made to wash them out in kitchen sink,
and you are so little, that you have to stand on a stool to reach the taps in
the kitchen sink. Well, when you live with that your whole childhood, the bar
is set pretty low and it's not hard to move into volatile relationships, then
I actually used to joke that one thing I got of me mam, was how to take a good
hiding. You put up with a lot when you don't value yourself, it's a hard
way to live life but if you know anything else, you just accept it.
Snapchat helps to raise awareness of violence against women in India
In recent years, family and domestic violence services in India have increasingly recognised the unique and emerging role social media can play in addressing problems around violence against women.
The Climb Against Sexual Abuse campaign drew global attention when survivors of sexual abuse used Snapchat filters to hide their identity while speaking publicly about their experiences.
Nida Sheriff is the manager of Chayn India, a crowdsourced online platform for women in India experiencing domestic violence and other forms of oppression. Speaking to i-D she explains, "In Indian society it is frowned upon to talk about issues like abuse, sexual or otherwise." But with most young people in India having a mobile phone, Chayn India have found this can be a tool to help individuals seek support that may otherwise be unavailable or unsafe to access.
It's this understanding of the vital role of a phone that led to Snap Councillors: a service that provides support and information around domestic and sexual violence through Snapchat. The idea was conceived by advertising creative director Rajshekar Patil, who had been exploring several social projects when he became interested in the potential of the app to reach out to vulnerable parties - especially young people.
In an email to i-D he explained, "Teen domestic violence never gets spoken about in India as somehow teenagers' problems are seen as an outcome of rebelliousness rather than a serious issue." He wanted to use the privacy and omnipresence of Snapchat by offering counselling and support to adolescents.
Not being a healthcare worker himself, he reached out to Nida and Chayn India with the idea. Together, they contacted Avani Parekh from Indian counselling service LoveDoctor to round out their team and bring the plan to life. Avani brought with him almost a decade of experience working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and a team of eight psychologists and trained councillors.
Snap Councillors send out daily snap stories with information about mental and sexual health, relationships, unhealthy behaviour and signs of abuse. They also encourage individuals to contact them directly for counselling and assistance from Avani and his team. The nature of the app means this counselling is provided in short bites that are automatically deleted after they're opened. It's a tidy way to remove concerns around abusive partners later discovering emails, texts or call records related to seeking help.
Nida continues, "Snapchat is able to provide the security and safety that those experiencing domestic violence and abuse crave, with the added benefit that the messages are automatically wiped out after the session meaning there is little risk of the abuser finding out." Reflecting on the tendency for abusers to monitor their victims' phones Raj adds, "As messages delete themselves, this would give victims the confidence to come out and talk to a counsellor, safe in the knowledge that their conversation would be safe. We didn't have to build trust on the app as teens were already comfortable using it."
While the service is open to anyone who needs it, much of their focus has been on those aforementioned teens. Nida explains that in India, when people hear the term "domestic violence" they usually think of a married, heteronormative couple. It was important for the team to acknowledge that teenagers and young unmarried people experience relationship abuse, abuse at home, stalking and harassment by their peers. "Providing a safe space on Snapchat - a place where they are already hanging out every day - makes it just a little bit easier to reach young people in a no-judgement space," she adds.
It's a focus that Avani mirrors, adding: "Sex and dating are so taboo and considered to sully the 'honour' of women especially, coming out into the open can solve the problem of the abusive relationship but then society can come down hard on the survivor, vilifying them and isolating them even though they did the right thing." While people like the Snap Councillor team are working to transform this thinking, for now Snapchat's face filters and unsaved messages can provide the protection from vilification needed to initially reach out.
Their reasoning is showing results, Avani told i-D that they daily have 1200 people viewing their stories and as many as 60 people reaching out for help. The time they spend with each person varies from a few minutes to weeks depending on whether they decide to return to the service. While each snap is seconds long, going back and forth he estimates that most sessions accumulate to about 45 minutes.
For all their success, the model does still
present limitations: they are unable to follow up with those who reach out to
them, and working in snippets of dialog can be limiting. But Nina reflects that
"For a lot of abuse survivors, just being able to tell someone is
cathartic." Avani concludes, "We provide safe space when someone
feels there is none." Snap Councillors may be limited in their
contact, but by embracing this new form of micro-counselling they're able to
reach a section of the population previously invisible to their services.