Focus on Gender: A role for mHealth in sexual violence
Research is needed into how women and girls could use mobile phones to get help after sexual violence, says Henrietta Miers.
Two recent scientific reviews published in PLOS Medicine concluded that more robust research is needed into the effectiveness of using mobile phones in healthcare (mHealth) in the developing world. This research should also investigate how mHealth could help women seeking help after sexual violence.
- Sexual violence is under-reported in the developing world, often because of stigma
- Mobile phones could be used to discreetly provide information and counselling after sexual attacks
- Research is needed into how mHealth can effectively provide this
Efforts to combat violence against women and girls are an increasing priority for donors. This is in conjunction with growing belief that such violence, as illustrated by the fatal gang rape of a female student in New Delhi, India, last month (December), should not be tolerated.
But despite this, and mounting awareness of its health, economic and educational impact, sexual violence against girls is under-reported across the developing world. A girl who has been raped may become pregnant, drop out of school, be forced to marry her abuser, be thrown out of home or unknowingly contract HIV.
Reports on sexual violence suggest it is highly prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In South Asia it is known to be widespread, despite a dearth of reliable data on the subject. A 2004 review by ActionAid found that the peak age for sexual violence against girls in Pakistan was between 12 and 18. 
This under-reporting of sexual violence against girls stems from a culture of silence. According to a report from Kenya, commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in 2010, parents leave cases unreported for fear of stigma, due to intimidation by the offending teacher or because they want to protect a teacher's reputation. In Islamic societies, sexual violence against girls remains largely concealed because of the importance attached to their virginity.
There are no known initiatives that use mobile telephones to help girls seek treatment after sexual violence. But some, such as the Learning about Living application pioneered by Mobile4Good in Nigeria in 2009, come close. This application allows young people to confidentially call, text or email sexual health questions to counsellors.
Research into mHealth's effectiveness should assess its ability to provide confidential counselling and information on access to HIV testing or physical treatment for girls who have suffered sexual violence and for whom other channels are denied.
Last November, DFID launched a Violence Against Women and Girls Research and Innovation Fund to collect evidence of violence and strategies to eliminate it. This initiative should explore mHealth's potential.
Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a Gender and Social Development Consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is Senior Associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.