HomeArticlesVimba! Bhekisisa app helps Diepsloot women and children access help when raped

Vimba! Bhekisisa app helps Diepsloot women and children access help when raped

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Bhekisisa is launching a free gender-based violence helpline in Diepsloot.

More than half the men – 56% – in Diepsloot in northern Johannesburg have abused a woman sexually or physically according to the baseline results of the Sonke Change Trial, which was conducted in the township this year. Of the men who admitted to being abusive, most (60.2%) said they had been violent towards a woman more than once.

This figure – revealed in the study, which is a partnership between the activist organisation Sonke Gender Justice and the School of Public Health at the University of the Witswatersrand – is almost twice as high as that in a 2010 study published in the SA Quarterly journal, which measured violence against women elsewhere in the country.

“Yet very few women in Diepsloot know where or how to access help,” says Brown Lekekela from The Green Door, the only place in the township where women and children who have been abused can find temporary shelter.

The Green Door is based in the yard next to Lekekela’s RDP house in Extension 6. It consists of three wooden Wendy houses. One has been divided into three rooms and has a shower and toilet, along with office space. Another has a single bed and a sofa.

Lekekela counsels victims and helps them report cases of abuse to the police. “But mostly, only people in my area know about me,” he says.

[WATCH] How our app helps Diepsloot women to survive rape

Lekekela pages through the book in which he records the incidents. “There is no nearby government hospital which offers rape counselling services. Only the police do. The two local clinics don’t stock rape kits,” he explains. “But there are at least five nongovernmental organisations that can assist victims for free. We just didn’t know how to let everyone know about them so that more peo- ple use their services.”

This situation, combined with the impact of a Bhekisisa article, published in October last year, about Lekekela’s work with victims of child rape in Diepsloot, has seen Bhekisisa partner with Diepsloot-based organisations to create a cellphone app that will make it easier for women and children in the township to know what to do and where to go when they’ve been abused.

The Green Door, Sonke Gender Justice, Lawyers Against Abuse, Afrika Tikkun and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group have all provided input for the app. They will be using and promoting the Vimba Helpline, which is funded by Bhekisisa’s main donor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“In Zulu, Vimba means ‘to prevent, stop or halt’,” explains Lekekela. “If someone in the street is robbed or hurt and they shout: ‘Vimba!’ people will run towards them to help. That’s why we’ve chosen this name.”

No data? No problem

The Vimba Helpline works on any type of cellphone and users don’t need airtime or data to use it.

“It was important to ensure that people the app was intended to help were able to use it,” says Laura Grant, Bhekisisa’s project manager for the app.

“Ninety percent of households in Diepsloot have access to a cell- phone, according to South Africa’s 2011 Census, but very few — only about one in five — use their phones to access the internet because they can’t afford the cost of data.”

The app uses “unstructured supplementary data”, more commonly known as USSD, which is a way cell- phones communicate with a service provider, that does not require data and there is no need to download anything on your phone.

“USSD technology was the best option — there is no sense in creat- ing an app with elaborate features that requires users to have data or access to the internet, if most people in Diepsloot can simply not afford to do so,”says Grant.

The Bhekisisa app works by a user dialling *134*403# from their cell- phone. This notifies a server to send a series of three menus, asking the user where they are in Diepsloot and what sort of help they need.

An SMS will then be sent to the user’s phone containing the phone numbers and addresses of the organisations in Diepsloot that help victims of gender-based violence, as well as the numbers of the police and ambulance service.

If they indicated that they have been raped, an SMS containing five things to remember is also sent to them (see the graphic above).

“It’s a simple solution to a massive problem to help people know where to access help,” says Lekekela. “I only see about 20 people a month who come to seek help. But we’re hundreds of thousands of people living here, with more than half of the men abusing a woman.”

According to the 2011 census, 138 000 people live in Diepsloot, about 12000 people per square kilometre. But residents and organisations in the township believe this number is a gross underestimation: many say the population is closer to half a million.

The app may guide future responses to violence

The app also functions as a way to collect data — such as the date and time of day users dialled the helpline, where in Diepsloot they are and what sort of help they need — which will be used to identify trends in gender-based violence in Diepsloot, areas that are violence hotspots and places where more support services are needed.

More than half — 52% — of the Diepsloot men interviewed in the Sonke Change Trial believed that their partners should always agree to sex and 70% thought they should be able to control the clothes a woman wears, the friends she sees or where she goes.

On the other side of Diepsloot, in Extension 2, Lawyers Against Abuse works out of a container within sight of the police station. Here, victims can get free legal services and psychosocial support. “We provide assistance with protection orders and in criminal cases of assault, rape and sexual assault,” explains Lindsay Henson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who works for the organisation.

Henson says since Lawyers gainst Abuse was established in mid-2014, it has helped 375 clients and has established strong relation- ships with the local police and court officials.

Next to Lawyers Against Abuse is a container housing the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. From here, they counsel people for free and also refer victims of abuse to further services, such as social workers.

Whereas Bhekisisa funded and spearheaded the development of the Vimba Helpline, all partners have provided input and some are also covering costs. Sonke Gender Justice is paying for the launch party on November 30 and Afrika Tikkun is carrying the cost of dis- tributing 5 000 flyers throughout Diepsloot.

“The app couldn’t have come at a better time for Diepsloot,” says Sonke Gender Justice’s community education and mobilisation man- ager, Dumisane Rebombo.

“The Vimba Helpline is being launched as part of our 16 days of activism against violence campaign. We’d like more women to report abuse and also get help. With the app we will help them to do so.”

The Vimba Helpline is available from November 25, but will be launched on November 30 at Sonke Gender Justice’s offices in Diepsloot. It will initially be available in English but isiZulu and Sepedi translations will be added. 

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.