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From apps to blogs, women are finding innovative ways to unite against domestic violence

Published: Sunday, April 6 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

The reason for this, said Swithin, is that abuse is so isolating. "You doubt yourself so much, because it's instilled in you that you're worthless. And it can be embarrassing that you've gotten yourself into this situation," she says. She works with some very successful women — physicians, people with doctorates, women who seem to have it all together — but who are ashamed to admit they might be victims.

"Talking to others makes you feel not alone — it happens to all kinds of people, no matter what your socioeconomic circumstances or education. We are all united by what happens to us, whether it's a doctor or the lady down the street," she says.

Now One Mom's Battle has 100 local chapters in five countries that provide support for parents — mostly women, but some men, too — who are navigating the family court system and healing from abusive situations. Swithin is in contact with women from Kentucky to Ireland, a situation she describes as "bittersweet."

"That number means that there are a lot of people who feel less alone today, but it also means this issue is bigger than I ever imagined," she says.

Apps for good

Domestic violence is chronically underreported, and only about one quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes and half of all stalking against females by intimate partners are reported to police, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Calling a stranger at 911 can be intimidating to a woman in a domestic violence situation, and it's not quick or subtle, says Tess Cacciatore. "You know the process — 911 doesn't always pick up on the first ring. Then you have to explain your circumstance, then tell your name and spell it."

As an alternative, Cacciatore's organization, GWEN (Global Women's Empowerment Network), devised a phone app that allows users, with the click of a button, to discreetly send a preset emergency message to five pre-programmed contacts. The "Gwen Alert" app instantly alerts contacts that the individual is in danger and sends GPS tracking information.

That way, five people can call 911 for a woman or come to her aid, Cacciatore said, but the benefit isn't just in emergency situations. As a former victim of abuse, Cacciatore says she understands many women in abusive situations are stripped of control, even over their cellphones. And some don't have the courage to tell people they are in trouble in the first place.

"The hardest part is that you're in denial and in shame. You don't want people to know," she said. "It takes several times of being victimized, even with physical violence, before a person gets the courage to speak out." She says she hopes that installing the Gwen Alert might help women think about who they could reach out to for help and start a conversation.

Letting a friend know that you're adding them to your alert system can be a "subtle hint," said Cacciatore. "It can be a little 'wink wink' — 'I think I might need help.' It can lead to the next step and the next step."

Likewise, San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church is starting a text service called "Safe for Women" as part of its "Women Overcoming Violence" program, in which women in unsafe or abusive situations can anonymously text to request to meet with a mentor for support or career advice. Women text a number that connects to Glide's staff, who then enter phone numbers from a database of women who have signed up to be support volunteers. Then the two women are connected via text.

"It's like a text hotline," says Sarah Austin, a mentor and volunteer who helped develop the program between Glide and the Tenderloin YMCA.

One of the advantages is that it's low-stakes and unintimidating, Austin says, and texting is an easy first step but one that "can lead to an in-person relationship."

Education first

Tools like the Gwen Alert are advances in women's safety, Cacciatore says, but her real hope is to educate women and girls to avoid abusive partner relationships in the first place.

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