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GUEST POST: Empowering women to challenge stalking through technology

Graphic with a light green background and left-aligned quoted text in dark green which reads "Although increasingly we hear of technology being used to abuse women, technology can also be a powerful tool for victims/survivors to challenge the abuse and find justice. This was the idea behind FollowItApp, a mobile app we created [...] for women experiencing stalking in Scotland." The quote is attributed to Natalia Equihua, Scottish Women's Rights Centre. In the top right hand corner of the graphic is the Engender logo, a circle with an equals sign in the centre, in bright green.

Stalking is form of violence against women that is often hidden and subtle, but is no less devastating and traumatic. This week is National Stalking Awareness Week, and Scottish Women's Rights Centre's Natalia Equihua has written a guest blog for us on the FollowIt app for women affected by stalking.

[CN: mentions of stalking, harassment]

Much like domestic abuse, throughout the pandemic we have seen an increase in stalking incidents; this is not surprising given that stalkers are often partners or ex-partners. Not only that, but according to a recent survey by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, online/digital stalking has become more common with 75% of victims experiencing both online and offline stalking since the first lockdown.

Although increasingly we hear of technology being used to abuse women, technology can also be a powerful tool for victims/survivors to challenge the abuse and find justice. This was the idea behind FollowItApp, a mobile app we created at the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre in collaboration with media co-op for women experiencing stalking in Scotland.

To understand what led us to create this app, what makes it so unique and how it supports women in Scotland, it’s important to explore the context of stalking in our country.

Stalking is a crime of two or more incidents

According to recent research, 1 in 5 women in the UK experience some form of stalking. It is, therefore, a form of violence against women and one closely interlinked with domestic abuse. Despite its prevalence, it wasn’t until 2010 that the law in Scotland recognised this form of abuse as a stand-alone crime.

Interestingly, rather than naming specific behaviours, the legislation defined stalking as crime that occurs when there are two or more incidents that make the victim feel frightened and alarmed. This was significant because it meant that behaviours that are not criminal on their own (such as sending flowers to someone or parking a car next to someone’s house) become a crime when they happen twice or more and their intention is to make the victim feel scared and intimidated (for example, an ex-partner sending flowers to let his victim know that he knows her whereabouts or leaving his car outsider her home to make her feel threatened).

One of the main recommendations we give to women who contact us at the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre because they are experiencing stalking is to keep a diary of the incidents. To take note of the day, time, location, a description of what happened and the emotional impact the incident had on them. This is essential information that can help them to demonstrate that what they’re going through are not isolated and ‘innocuous’ incidents, but a pattern of abusive behaviours.

Before we created FollowItApp, survivors would often write a diary of the incidents on a notebook or in their computers. However, they would often share their concern that someone might find the notebook or document (for example, the stalker, a child, a partner) or that they might lose this information and, with it, the ability to do something about the stalking.

This is when we started to consider using the technology that women already have in their pockets to easily and safely store this sensitive information. We discussed the idea with media co-op, a company we’ve worked with on multiple media projects, and after they secured some funding, we started to bring this idea to life.

Graphic with a light green background and left-aligned quoted text which reads "Stalking can be a difficult experience to pinpoint. It often starts slowly with seemingly ‘innocuous’ behaviours that build over time. And because the abuse can be ‘subtle’, some women find that they are not believed or their experiences are minimised or dismissed." The quote is attributed to Natalia Equihua, Scottish Women's Rights Centre. In the top right hand corner of the graphic is the Engender logo, a circle with an equals sign in the centre, in bright green.

Using mobile technology to challenge stalking

Nowadays, smartphones are a device where we record some of our most private information. For this reason, the security in these devices has increased over the years, to the point that we trust them to do our banking, check our health records, and speak to our loved ones.

The convenience and security offered by smartphones is what convinced us to create a mobile app that could aid women who are being stalked. We wanted women to be able to build a picture of their situation, to demonstrate that two or more incidents had occurred and to do so in a way that the information was stored safely away from the stalker and protected from getting lost.

We also wanted to ensure that an app of this kind would be closely aligned with the law in Scotland, so that women could capture the information that they needed when approaching the police. To this end, we consulted with women’s organisations, the police, the Crown Office and, most importantly, with women who are living with stalking. They helped us to design an app that would be easy to use and helpful in stalking situations.

But the goal of this app is more than just being a tool for reporting stalking. Since we launched it in 2019 we have seen how it benefits women in other ways and how it empowers them in a situation where they might feel little control.

Empowering victims/survivors of stalking

Stalking can be a difficult experience to pinpoint. It often starts slowly with seemingly ‘innocuous’ behaviours that build over time. And because the abuse can be ‘subtle’, some women find that they are not believed or their experiences are minimised or dismissed.

However, as more women access FollowItApp, we have found that keeping a log of the stalking incidents is a powerful tool for women to validate their own experiences of abuse, one that helps them to see clearly what is happening and to feel able to do something about the stalking in their own terms and at their own pace.

Some women have told us that the app gives them peace of mind and helps them to remember what they have gone through, while others have said it is particularly helpful to have everything saved in one place and available if they decide to go to the police.

Ultimately, collecting details of their experience has allowed some women to prove to themselves and to those around them that they are going through a traumatic and difficult situation. Our hope is that FollowItApp gives them a way to cope with the stalking —whether that is by writing down what is going on for them, seeking support from organisations like ours, reporting the crime, or all of the above.

And in a time where tech and digital abuse are on the rise, it is encouraging to see that technology designed by and for women is helping to counteract the abuse and misogyny that happens on and offline.

FollowItApp is available for women in Scotland aged 18 and over who are experiencing stalking. For more information and to download the app visit this website.

If you are experiencing stalking or any other form of abuse, please know you’re not alone. Contact Scotland’s National Rape Crisis Helpline on 08088 01 03 02 (open daily 6pm-midnight) for emotional support and the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre on 08088 010 789 (see our opening times here) for legal and advocacy support. You can find other organisations that can support you here.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own. Bloggers have received some editorial support from Engender, and may have received a fee from our commissioning pot. We aim for our blog to reflect a range of feminist viewpoints, and offer a commissioning pot to ensure that women do not have to offer their time or words for free.

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