Returning agency through innovation

26 May, 2022

Molly Bernstein

After refugees leave their homes, one of the main shifts in their day-to-day lives is a dramatic loss of agency. Often, asylum seekers live in camps or settlements, where there are few choices they can make: they wear the clothes they received during distributions; they eat the meals handed out; and mostly, they wait for the authorities to tell them where they’re heading next, where they’re allowed to start the rest of their lives. This lack of agency can be extremely difficult.

For example, since IsraAID succeeded in evacuating tens of women and girls and their families from Afghanistan in September, they’ve been waiting for their resettlement processes to move forward. While IsraAID and our partners have worked to create opportunities for these refugees to learn English and to prepare themselves for the next stage of their lives in Canada, much of their daily reality is absorbed by waiting.
This can sometimes be further exacerbated for women and girls by gender norms, prescribed by cultures and traditions. For some of these women and girls, even the choice to attend English classes, to go to the grocery store, or to report psychological or other forms of abuse is taken away from them. Amid the resettlement process, new fears emerge, as the social infrastructure that previously guided the relationships even within the home is undercut and challenged. Some might even be afraid to report domestic issues, for fear of how this information could affect their resettlement requests.

In this realm, specifically when an individual’s safety and security is being threatened, it’s critical that we, as humanitarian practitioners, return agency and provide information as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible.

For this reason, over the last months, IsraAID has rolled out a new program that provides information on sexual and gender-based violence directly to refugees’ phones. An automated Whatsapp bot was programmed by our specialists to provide insight, definitions, and support for anyone who messages the system, offering guidance about what to do, what resources are available, and how they can support those in their community who may be facing these issues. In addition, the bot allows the end user to submit an anonymous report that gets sent automatically to the social worker on the ground, who can then follow up with a case of gender-based violence, as needed.

By expanding access to this critical information, we were able to raise awareness of these issues directly to each individual on their phone. This allows us to overcome the taboos and stigmas of discussing such sensitive issues, and creates space for true anonymity when it comes to reporting. Utilizing these type of innovative solutions can help us to overcome the barriers facing refugees, by reaching them privately and sensitively, directly on their phones.

This intervention was generously supported with in-kind contributions by, and hosted by, an easy-to-use platform for building and launching Whatsapp bots.

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