With online abuse and gender-based violence making headlines, we caught up with Ashoka Fellow Hera Hussain, founder of Chayn, to gain insights about the role technology can play, as well as its limitations, in providing healing & well-being to survivors of abuse.
Julia Kloiber: Your organization leverages tech to support survivors of gender-based violence. How did it get started?
Hera Hussain: I started Chayn in 2013 right after graduating with a degree in psychology and economics from the University of Glasgow. Having grown up in Pakistan, where there’s not a time of day when you’re not reminded that you’re a woman, I was very aware of issues like domestic abuse, forced marriages, honor-based violence, and sexual violence that women face everywhere. While in the UK, I helped two close friends get out of abusive marriages, one was from Pakistan living in the UK, and the other was in Pakistan. As a digital native, I was turning to Google for everything, and I was shocked that there just wasn’t much information or services online.
Kloiber: What were the main gaps you noticed?
Hussain: The little information available seemed to strictly target Europeans or North Americans and was only available in English. I also found quite a lot of racial stereotyping : happy women were always white, and the sad women running away with bruises were always black and brown. The friend I was helping in the UK was from Pakistan and she was undocumented because of her husband. This meant she couldn’t access any government funded services in person. So, we called the National Domestic Violence helpline dozens of times but never once reached anyone or got a call back. My friend was so traumatized that she didn’t have the language to express what was happening to her, neither in Urdu, nor in English. She asked me to call on her behalf, but because of privacy laws, I couldn’t technically do it, so I had to pretend to be her. I eventually helped my friend and her son run away from her husband, but there were just so many problems that didn’t make sense to me in a tech age. I started Chayn as a response, to connect people more easily to the resources they needed to find safety and peace of mind. At first, I recruited volunteers, mostly survivors of domestic violence who wanted to provide peer support.
Kloiber: How has the work evolved since then?
Hussain: Chayn, which means “solace” or “peace of mind” in Urdu, is now the first fully digital organization addressing gender-based violence globally. To this day, 70 percent of our volunteers and staff are survivors. They are distributed across the world and guided by feminist principles and trauma-informed design. We create online resources for survivors of gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and other forms of violence. These resources are available in 14 languages. They’re either guides, like “How do I stay safe online? Or “Am I in a manipulative relationship?” that help people understand the trauma they’ve experienced or are experiencing right now, as well as practical steps to guide them moving forward. We also provide interactive digital services, like the Soul Medicine micro-courses on how to collect evidence of domestic abuse. That usually arrives in their email inbox disguised with a title like “30 ways you can use wool to decorate your house,” so they’re protected if someone is looking over their shoulder. We also have a service called Bloom, in-depth, pre-recorded mental-health courses, so people can self-pace their learning. And of course, one-on-one peer support. All of our content is trauma-informed, written by survivors and allies and checked by therapists.
Kloiber: What is trauma-informed design?
Hussain: What our partners Bumble are doing is a good example of trauma-informed design. Bumble is a dating app and they use simple image recognition and image blurring technologies to detect pictures of private parts. Often those are unsolicited, making them horrible to interact with. By automatically blurring the image and giving users the option to unblur it if they want, Bumble is flipping the default dynamics and helping to avert trauma. We want to help large tech platforms incorporate trauma-informed design into their products, because they have millions of users, many of whom are experiencing abuse online.
Kloiber: What advice do you have for these tech companies?
Hussain: At the moment, so many of them take a narrow approach to addressing online abuse: “report to us, and we will take this profile down.” That can be effective, but there’s a lot more they could be doing. Things like having better policies internally that limit the kinds of features perpetrators can access, or discouraging and eliminating multiple accounts coming from IP addresses that have been flagged. We also need more proactive monitoring of abusive posts in multiple languages. This is why we produce a lot of knowledge products geared toward tech companies, like Orbits our field-guide for tech-enabled survivor-centric interventions.
Kloiber: How could new regulations help?
Hussain: New regulations could ensure platforms work with third party providers who can offer healing justice support to the survivors. This way, if users don’t feel like the platforms are dealing with the abuse, they have another place to go. Setting very clear requirements and expectations around what kind of data is collected and how it is treated and creating standards for respecting survivors’ agency are also key. Balancing safety and privacy is the biggest frontier for human rights right now. It’s where a lot of gender-based violence, and anti-child trafficking work disintegrates.
Kloiber: How do you take care of your own team’s well-being and mental health?
Hussain: We focus a lot on this because it is hard work, and with 70 percent of our staff and volunteers being survivors themselves, it’s deeply personal as well. The volunteers only need to commit three months at time, which builds-in the permission to leave if the work gets too triggering. We also have a therapist who is available to our volunteers and staff, a monthly collective care session facilitated by a therapist to help us build a culture of care and resilience, and a flexible 4-day work week for our staff. Having said all of that, our distributed team of 400 volunteers tells us that the community itself, the support they get from each other, is most important. I think that’s beautiful because it’s self-organized.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. Hera Hussain is based in the U.K. She became an Ashoka Fellow in 2022.