Report on Webinar #4 “Using Technology to Support Victims during a Public Health Crisis”

Webinar 4 in the series of weekly online meetings organized by the Global Network of Women’s Shelters (GNWS) took place on Wednesday, April 15 at 6pm ET Washington DC. The topic was “Using Technology to Support Victims during a Public Health Crisis”. A total of 199 people from 40 countries joined the webinar.


  • Cindy Southworth, National Network to End Domestic Violence (USA)
  • Erica Olsen, National Network to End Domestic Violence (USA)
  • Karen Bentley, WESNET (Australia)
  • Malathi Das, SCWO, Singapore
  • Anthony Carlisle, Garden of Hope, Taiwan
  • Maria Munir, National Shelter Network, Ethiopia
  • Lise Martin, National Shelter Network, Canada

Repeating last week’s topic for a different time zone, the webinar addressed the question of how to use technology to help victims of gender-based violence within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers discussed good practices for online counseling, using technology safely, and protecting victims who are confined to their homes.

Karen talked about the need to ensure survivors were not leaving footprints on their mobile devices for abusers to follow. Shelter workers should check their clients are following safety protocols and regularly remind them to be vigilant. You should not assume that if sending text messages was safe last week it will be okay this week.

Reporting from Canada, Lise said the government has pledged C$50m to protection of survivors of domestic violence, including C$26m for 575 shelters. Most of the funding is flexible, and is being used by shelters for staff expenses, emergency relief for survivors and other expenses.

In Canada, shelters are using hotels with a member of staff being onsite 24/7 for support. In Quebec, for mothers in shelters, visitation rights for the abusive parent have been suspended. The shelter network has launched a poster campaign in pharmacies and supermarkets to reach survivors trapped at home.

Malathi updated the webinar on the situation in Singapore, which has seen a 33% increase in calls to the domestic violence hotline compared to the same period last year. Caused by factors related to the COVID-19 crisis, loss of income, and the partial lockdown, the increase in demand for help is putting a strain on social services.

In Taiwan, Anthony said the collapse of service industry was affecting women in particular. At the Garden of Hope, some 40 clients are on “unpaid leave”. Social workers have stopped all face-to-face meetings, which puts clients who are vulnerable to abuse at home in greater danger.

Anthony said that the government is concentrating on controlling the outbreak, which has been very successful so far. Unfortunately prevention of domestic violence is currently not a priority.

Erica addressed concerns about the safety of Zoom. Although NNEDV regularly uses Zoom (including this webinar) Erika said she would not recommend it for confidential conversations with clients because like many other video conferencing applications, it is difficult to use without downloading, and thus leaving a footprint on a mobile device.

Speakers also addressed the issue of using of code words (like “mask 19” in France) to alert pharmacists when making a call within earshot of an abuser. Unfortunately these code words also become widely known to perpetrators, so as a result some survivors are now unable to call their pharmacy for essential medication.


Below are the questions asked in the Q&A box during the webinar with answers provided by the speakers.

  1. How secure (if at all) is using any type of video, chat, or text line for private client advocacy or therapy sessions given the recent concerns with security breaches and hacking. Is there a product you all endorse?No product is without risk and for this and many reasons, NNEDV does not endorse products. Products are continuously changing and we cannot verify if their privacy, access, and security features will be the same.

    Depending on the survivors needs, the platform that will cause the least harm may be not be easily identified right away. It is important that with whatever product we use, we give survivors all of the information they need up front to make an informed decision. Being able to make an informed decision, means that survivors know the pros and cons as it relates to their situation in utilizing the product. They will also understand the risks, and also be given all of the information about how a platform may collect or share information.

    It also means that you all need to consider your confidentiality obligations. For organizations in the USA: many products promote that they are HIPAA compliant, but that compliance isn’t the end all be all for programs governed under VAWA/FVPSA/VOCA. While again we cannot say if something is compliant or not, you can analyze if the features of any product has the abilities to meet your confidentiality needs. We have a Comparison Chart where we list products programs can assess if it would be a good tool for them.

  2. Hi, are there any specific videocall services that are recommended as considered safer to use with clients? What are your thoughts about using Skype and Facetime?If a survivor reaches out to you via these platforms then it is okay to engage, but it is important to let them know the risks and issues with doing so in that way. If you all are wanting to reach out to survivors then you are obligated by law to do this a thoughtful and to do this as safe as possible for survivors. It is important to use tools that have privacy, accessibility, and security in mind. We have a Choosing a Vendor Checklist that you can use to help you think about the features that Skype and Facetime have and use it to guide you in deciding if those tools will work for you. We have not had the capacity to do a deep dive into either one of those tools, but the vendor checklist will get you started.
  3. Are there legal ramifications to having conversations in less private ways, like over text or video conference?  Is this a form of waiving privilege?  I wonder if it opens the conversations up to easier subpoenas.It’ll be important to look at your privilege statute to see how and when privilege can be waived. Unless there is a conversation about specific legal information (a conversation that should remain between the professional and the survivor) in front of other people (say a group call, for example), it’s likely that the privilege will still stand. Regarding subpoenas, if you are a program that is funded by VAWA, FVPSA, or VOCA – a subpoena is not an exception to your confidentiality obligations. Anyone can send in a subpoena, but you still cannot share identifying or individual info about a survivor without a valid court order (signed by a judge) or when mandated due to a state statute. We do always want to make sure that we’re not using a third-party platform that has access to and retains the content of conversations, such as online chats. If they retained the information, a subpoena could be sent directly to them.

Next week

The next webinar in this series will be on “Serving women with COVID-19: What are the lived experience around the world?” to be held on April 22 at 11:00AM EST. Please register here.


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  1. Pingback: Is it safe for shelters to use Zoom? – Asian Network of Women's Shelters

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