Uncovering and counseling domestic violence victims through the My Plan app

‘Has he threatened you with a gun?’ Is one of the questions a woman will be asked when she’s downloaded the domestic abuse counseling app My Plan.

“This scenario is more common on college campuses than we’d like to believe,” said the app’s co-founder, Nancy Glass.

Glass, who is a professor and associate dean for research at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in the U.S., founded the app after 20 years of witnessing women navigate complex, potentially fatal, safety decisions with minimal formal help.

It was developed in partnership with the One Love Foundation, an organization that aims to eradicate relationship violence. The group was founded by Sharon Love, whose daughter, Yeardley, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 2010.

The tool, which has been piloted on U.S. college campuses, asks women a series of questions about their situation. Then with input from professionals via a live chat function, shows a woman how to consider possible choices for action, developing a tailored safety plan and linking her to local resources.

“She could get help to move accommodation, and she may get a protection order, among other things. Often people just aren’t aware of the help out there and how to access it,” says Glass, who is a also professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to the United Nations, at least one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly by an intimate partner.

“The questions in My Plan start women thinking about what constitutes a healthy relationship; to look at jealousy and controlling behavior. Women tell us that by using it their concerns have been validated, they’ve understood how dangerous their situation is and that things could have ended very badly if they’d not found the app,” she says.

Since launching at the start of 2014 in partnership with the One Love Foundation, My Plan has been downloaded nearly 15,000 times via iTunes and Android platforms – with nearly 6,000 of those happening in the first few months of 2016.

A study, with a sample of 725 U.S.-based users over 12 months, showed that it had assisted high-risk women with the resources they needed to safely leave their abuser, reducing their exposure to sexual and psychological intimate partner violence.

“It’s very different to just googling what’s out there,” says Glass. “In our pilot, we compared the difference for a woman using the app as opposed  to searching online and using domestic violence and safety websites. Women using the app, of all ages, reported more clarity and understanding of their core values and priorities and felt more equipped to make decisions. Most importantly, those that left their partner, were able to do so safely, which isn’t always the case.

My Plan has so far been launched in Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as the US. But, knowing that gender-based violence is a monumental problem globally, undermining peace, equality and healthy lives, the app has been designed to be easily adapted for new populations and settings, as resource become available.

As a finalist for the Womanity Foundation award, Glass and her colleagues are hoping to win the US$300,000 prize money, plus support from Womanity’s networks and knowledge-base, to branch out to new countries and communities.

They are currently developing My Plan in Somalia and Kenya’s refugee communities, through a partnership with the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (known as CISP).

The Italian NGO has deep experience in working with gender-based violence in East Africa.

“We are interested in speaking to development organisations in diverse settings in low and middle income areas around the world to grow this,” says Glass.

There are some barriers in Somalia, she explains. Certain terrorist groups have cut access to 3G. But there are other potential wifi options and the team is looking at using clinics to house wifi hotspots.

Francesco Njagi Kaburu, regional program manager for protection at the CISP East Africa Office, says the app has promising potential as part of a drive to de-normalise gender-based violence in East Africa.

“The first thing is to convince someone about the importance of such an app,” he explains. “Many times social workers tell us women are not aware of how bad a situation was or could become.

“In Mogadishu, where we’re looking to first trial the app, the level of capacity for self assessment is very, very low. Domestic violence is taken for granted – women think that if their husband doesn’t beat them he doesn’t love them; that it’s a positive form of discipline.”

To achieve scale, the two organisations are working with the Somalian government to ensure its early acceptance of the project.

As time goes on, CISP staff will also work with the country’s Ministry of Health so that My Plan can be run through health clinics. The aim is then to take the app to as many difficult and low resourced settings as possible around Africa and around the world.