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Harnessing The Power Of Technology To Break The Cycles Of Violence Against Women And Violence Against Children In Sri Lanka

In early 2022, Angel (name changed), an aspiring Sri Lankan doctoral student pursuing studies in New Zealand, returned to Sri Lanka to support community protests against the former Sri Lankan President. While at home, she was stabbed by her ex-partner. She immediately succumbed to injuries and the ex-partner was arrested. Angel’s tragic death is not an isolated incident. In recent years, Sri Lanka has been experiencing an alarming increase in gender-based violence (GBV).

During the Covid – 19 pandemic, country-wide lockdowns limited access to help services  for women, members of the LGBTQA+ community, as well as children, experiencing violence in their homes. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) reported that the number of complaints of domestic violence increased from 8,165 in 2020 to 11,187 in 2021. Even before the pandemic, levels of domestic violence against women were alarmingly high. In 2019, findings from the Women’s Wellbeing survey states that, in their lifetime, 17 percent of women in Sri Lanka reported experiencing domestic violence, one in five women reported experiences of sexual or/and physical violence by an intimate partner, whilst one in four women had experienced sexual or/ and physical violence since age 15.

Reports indicate that levels of intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual violence have worsened as a result of the ongoing socio-economic crisis. Rising income loss, limited availability of services to respond to GBV and rising travel costs hamper at-risk women and girls access to services. Highlighting this dire situation, the U.N. report on Sri Lanka’s humanitarian needs and priorities (HNP) have called for  the need to protect nearly 0.96 million children and women from violence and provide mental health and psycho-social support timely to mitigate GBV and VAC.

Our approach

Since 2016, Shanthi Maargam has been working with at-risk children, adolescents and their guardians from urban lower-income areas, and vulnerable youth from the LGBTQIA+ community. Through the delivery of behavioural change programmes and provision of free counselling to improve the emotional well-being of children and youth, Shanthi Maargam aims to break the intergenerational cycle of violence.

Adolescence is a period of transition and a time of increased risk of both victimisation and perpetration of violence. Adolescence thus provides an important time to address violence against women and work to shift harmful social norms. Shanthi Maargam has implemented counselling programs and adapted positive youth development (PYD) programs such as Parivartan, a sports based initiative, and PATHS (Positive Adolescent Training through Holistic Social Programs) for both girls and boys. Participants in evaluations of the PATHS to Change program report significant reductions in victim-blaming (50%), improvements in interpersonal relationships (22%), increased trust (30%) and reduction in violence towards peers (6%).[1]

Technology assisted GBV programming

Harnessing the power of technology, tech-based GBV prevention applications for adolescents – which are tailored to local contexts – have been piloted in many countries. In Brazil an initiative called Caretas, an artificial intelligence (AI) powered fictional character-based program, promotes behaviour change focusing on digital safety, sexting, and revenge porn among youth. Maru, a chatbot developed by Plan International supports girls and women who face or witness online harassment by providing advice and resources.

Through the Creating a digital safe space for adolescents to break cycles of VAC and VAW in Sri Lanka studywe will add an innovative component to the program. In purposefully designed digital spaces we will offer access to counselling; gamified experience of behaviour change activities using PATHS and Parivarthan; and access to mental health related activities such as meditation, yoga, and art therapy designed by experts. The process has been designed to understand the best approaches for remote program delivery, monitoring, and evaluation using a digital platform. As a digital product for youth, they will be engaged throughout the design stage to evaluation to ensure it is relevant and has a youth-centred approach. While developing the digital experience, we will assess behavioural changes of adolescents at baseline and every six months. We hope our initiative will promote emotional well-being among young people leading to the adoption of gender-equitable attitudes and behaviours using peer-led, collaborative online social connectedness, and recovery from VAC and VAW among survivors.

Ultimately, we hope our digital safe space will bring together the mental health, research and activism of an extraordinary community who are fighting to end GBV. As a Global South driven initiative, we look forward to sharing our research process and digital product development with the SVRI community in the coming months.

Moving forward, Sri Lanka needs innovative action and civil society-driven activism to act against the increased level of VAW and VAC which has been heightened by the ongoing socio-economic crisis. This means, this year’s theme of the 16 days of activism against GBV, “UNiTE! Activism to end violence against women and girls” is more meaningful than ever for us.

Key Words: digital innovation | Violence Against Women | Violence Against Children| Sri Lanka | Gamification

Written by Menusha Gunasekara


About the Author

Menusha Gunasekara is the Project Manager of the “Creating a digital safe space for adolescents to break cycles of violence in Sri Lanka” project at Shanthi Maargam

[1] Shanthi Maargam. 2018. Paths to Change Development of a life skills programme for adolescents to reduce violence among peers. Unpublished report to UNICEF.

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