Refuge launches online chatbot which provides safe information to thousands of women experiencing abuse through technology

Refuge has launched an online chatbot which aims to provide safe and accessible information to thousands of women across the country experiencing abuse through technology. In 2019, 72% of women who accessed support from Refuge services identified experiencing tech abuse, which can range from persistent telephone calls from perpetrators, being targeted via social media, having their location tracked or spyware installed in their homes. Refuge is the leading national domestic abuse charity working with survivors experiencing tech abuse, which is almost always experienced alongside other forms of domestic abuse.

Refuge has supported women that have experienced many forms of tech abuse, from perpetrators creating fake accounts to harass them online, impersonating their online identity, putting recording devices inside children’s toys, attaching GPS trackers to cars, or logging into online storage to monitor messages.

The new chatbot can be accessed via the Refuge website here. It offers instructional videos as well as practical real-time tips on how to secure devices such as mobile phones and ensuring your location-tracking or map applications aren’t accessible to abusive partners.

It was designed by Roxanne Leitao, a PhD student at Central Saint Martins, with funding from LDoc.

Leitao said: “The idea for the chatbot developed from my PhD research, which looks at the intersection of technology and domestic abuse. I interviewed survivors of domestic abuse and a group of support workers as part of my research, and I realised that most of the women I spoke to weren’t confident in managing their digital devices. I then ran a series of co-design workshops with survivors and support workers.

Working with Refuge’s tech abuse team and, based on the findings from the PhD research, we identified the need for an online resource that could show women how to secure their devices. The chatbot provides clear and simple instruction videos that women can access anywhere, anytime, and offers guidance for securing a number of devices including iPhones and Android. I worked closely with survivors of tech abuse and directly with Refuge to shape and test the design, and make sure it was as effective and user-friendly as possible.”

Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of national domestic abuse charity Refuge said:

“Tech abuse is domestic abuse. Women are reporting tech abuse to us on an alarming scale, and we know that being able to access quick, safe and accessible support in order to secure devices is crucial. We have worked with clients who have had spyware installed in their homes, or their movements tracked by abusive partners, as well as women whose children have had their toys tampered with, and tracking devices placed in them.

This chatbot will help save and change lives, and will empower women to ensure their devices are safe. It will enable Refuge to upscale the support offered to women, not just in Refuge services, but wherever they are.”

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