Febbraio 26, 2018

A feminist approach to social innovation: the case of Chayn Italia

Chayn Italia Logo

In 2018, violence against women remains one of the largest human rights violations, affecting 35% of women worldwide[1]. Despite the scale of this global challenge, it is still difficult to collect data, map resources and provide context-specific tools that estimate and tackle violence against women. Over the past few years, the rise of digital technologies is creating new opportunities to address social issues, giving way to the growth of the social innovation sector. In the human rights sector, many apps and digital tools have been designed and implemented.


However, the design of these tools often pay little attention to gender/power/race/sexuality/disability relations. Then, survivors of violence against  girls and women (VAGW), activists or social workers are rarely involved in the design and start-up process.


Chayn is an open-source global project that leverages technology to provide women experiencing abuse with tools against domestic violence by providing access to information and support. The project started in May 2013 with the ideation of the Pakistani platform, born out of the founder’s experience of supporting a close friend leaving an abusive relationship. The project aims to fill the lack of information a woman often faces when trying to find support on the internet with practical information on legal support, map of services, psychological dynamics of abuse as well as toolkits created to address specific issues such as sexual health and online security. 2013 saw the launch of the Indian chapter and, in 2015, Chayn Italia was the first Chayn experiment in a completely different context – a Southern European country.


The Italian National Institute of Statistics reported that almost 7 million women aged 16 to 70 years have experienced VAGW. These numbers show an alarming reality: one out of three women being physically and sexually harassed during their life. Mainstream media outlets are worsening this already alarming scenario. Media report cases of femicide (i.e.: women killed by men on the basis of their gender) drawing extensively on gender stereotypes. Media also violate women’s right to privacy. Or, media present perpetrators’ actions as dictated by natural instincts, jealousy or economic crisis.


In this context, the idea of creating an Italian chapter of the Chayn global project seemed urgent. At the same time, as the Non Una di Meno feminist movement was growing stronger, Chayn Italia was setting for herself the goal of strengthening the online presence of a diverse community of individuals and groups rallying together and creating new narratives to speak about VAGW in Italy. The use of gender-sensitive language played a significant role in shaping the project: words as vittima (victim) or verb as subire (be subjected to) – so common in Italian newspapers – were substituted with a more empowering vocabulary, inspired by the English word “survivor”. Online, Chayn tries to avoid any sentence that could victimise and disempower readers. Offline, Chayn organizes courses for professional journalists. No doubt that, when it comes to change societal constructs, language and framing matter.


Of course, Chayn is not alone in this enterprise. For instance,  Tech Vs Abuse has been pivotal in developing and spreading innovation through a multi-stakeholder collaboration between survivors of abuse and experts such as researchers and designers.


Tech Vs Abuse found that technology has been already playing a very powerful role in the support of women and other people experiencing abuse – i.e. access to services and shelters, access to easily understandable legal and financial information, insights on how to browse protecting one’s privacy. However, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Circumstances often change, and the abuse phases might overlap. The need of online-offline links is one of the most prominent insight: technology is an enabler rather than a solution.


In this vein, more than 50 volunteers with different professional and personal background contributed to the project design and implementation of Chayn Italia. This included women with personal experiences of abuse, psychologists, user researchers, women’s aid workers, project managers, web developers, researchers, translators and illustrators. We consider this diversity as an important part of the project development, not just for providing accurate content that is checked by experts from the VAGW field – but also to guarantee an empowering approach that is centered on survivors’ experiences. This facilitated our understanding of barriers and boundaries that women face in their journey to leave a violent relationship and how different aspects of lived experiences such as race, sexuality, and economic background can have a profound impact on their circumstances. Using an intersectional approach helped root out stereotypes and assuming a ‘common enough’ idea of user. Website design itself and the illustrations used have been co-created with the specific goal of building a pleasant and safe(r) space where viewers can feel comfortable and take their time familiarising with sensitive information. Co-design has proven to be a valid methodology for guaranteeing inclusivity without generalizing the problem.


In two years, we reached over 18,000 users through our website, but we are aware that working in an online environment can sometimes divorce you from the reality of frontline work. The Chayn Italia team has never planned on being a substitute for services on the ground, nor representing itself as an easy tech-solution to VAGW. On the contrary, being constantly in touch with women’s  shelters has been an important incentive for enhancing content and reacting to frontline demand. It has also at times radically changed our point of view in the creation of new projects.


Based on our experiences, these are some of the key insights for a feminist approach to social innovation:


  • Social innovation is inherently political because there is no such a thing as a “neutral” intervention: our lived experiences influence and shape the extent to which we understand other people’s journeys and act on social change.


  • There is no designed ”solution” to societal challenges: systems of injustice are complex and interconnected. Therefore, social innovators shouldn’t advocate for a tech powered solution to societal problems, but provide tools for information, self defence and self empowering.


  • The design of services and platforms should start from the assumption that  “one size fits all” approach is inherently unjust.


  • An intersectional approach to developing resources on VAGW should be inclusive in language but it also should account for topic areas that respond to diverse needs: from details on migration law and legal statues, to state provided income benefit, to specific sections on same sex relationships, to stereotypes about violence.


  • Co-design is key. People’s lived experiences and their direct input should be central to design and implementation.


  • Language matters: the way we communicate concepts has consequences on the sense we make of concepts.


  • Thinking of the initially unpredicted effects of your approach or project is important: for example, online safety is pivotal.


  • Individually developed innovation cannot replace state provision of services (such as shelters and helplines). We advocate instrumental self-organisation whilst demanding social and political change.


All things considered, the experience of Chayn-Italy has shown us that social innovation is helpful, but it is not the magic bullet for overcoming structural inequalities and injustice.

[1] Data refer to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.

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About Chiara Missikoff

Chiara Missikoff

Chiara Missikoff is a social researcher and facilitator at Sociolab, a multidisciplinary research centre based in Florence. Experienced in action-research and community engagement, she has mainly focused her work on urban regeneration, gender issues and social inclusion. She collaborated with Città Ibrida (Rome), Fondazione G.Feltrinelli (Milan), West of Scotland Regional Equality Council (Glasgow, UK) and the Post-conflict Research Centre (Sarajevo, BiH). In 2015, she co-founded Chayn Italia, the italian chapter of a global charity that leverages technology to empower women against domestic violence through open source need-specific toolkits, web platforms and workshops. She holds a Master in International relations from the University of Bologna and a Master of Research from the University of Glasgow. During her studies, she has developed a specific knowledge on post-socialist divided societies due to her field researches in Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia.

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About Elena Silvestrini

Elena Silvestrini

Elena Silvestrini is the Projects Coordinator at Platoniq, where she is involved in social innovation and collaborative cultural production with a focus on capacity building, idea development and co-creation methodologies. Elena is a gender and women’s rights expert, through years of political organising and formal education and applies an intersectional approach to all her work. She has a BA in International relations from the University of Roma, and an MSc in Gender studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has co-designed training programmes, workshops and up-skilling sessions during her time at NEON (New Economy Organisers Network) and European Alternatives (the Transeuropa Festival). She is also the co-founder of Chayn Italia and has been a researcher in the Comic Relief TechVsAbuse research project.

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