Benin: Text Messages to Help Protect Children Against Violence: Lessons Learned

The Violence Against Children (VAC) project is an initiative co-implemented by PLAN and Save the Children in West Africa and takes place over 4 years (2008-2011) in seven countries: Togo, Ghana, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia. The VAC project trains and engages children and youth themselves as advocates and agents of change to end violence, together with adult community allies. A comprehensive UN report proposes recommendations for action to prevent and respond to violence against children around the world. Earlier this year, the project explored the idea of setting up a text message based system that will collect and map out reports of violence against children in communities in Benin and Togo.

The managers of the VAC project sent the following statistics about violence against children in Benin: according to a study conducted by the Benin Ministry of Family in 2007 (Etude nationale sur la Traite des enfants réalisée par le Ministère de la Famille en 2007) [fr]:

Le nombre d’enfants victimes de traite résidant sur le territoire béninois au moment de l’enquête a été estimé à 40317, soit 2% de la population béninoise résidant âgée de 6-17 ans dont près de 86% sont les filles.

It was estimated that at the time of the study, 40,317 children living in Benin were exploited, i.e 2% of the population between the age of 6 and 17 and of those 86% were young girls

Here is a video overview of the VAC Project there:

The following is our conversation with Linda Raftree, social media and new technology advisor for Plan West Africa Region and ICT4D Technical Advisor for Plan USA who was closely involved with implementing the text messages-based technological support for the VAC project in Benin. She wrote extensively about fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children in Benin, the solutions that ICT could potentially provide in that context and the challenges that they faced. We discussed the implementation, the strengths and weaknesses of the technology portion of the project and the lessons learned in order to provide better protection for children.

Team member Henry explains the workflow of SMS reporting during the workshop*


Technology for Transparency Network (TTN): Tell us a little bit about the project, the genesis of the idea for a text message-based reporting system.
Linda Raftree (LR): The project is managed by my colleague who works in the West Africa regional office and I’m supporting with the ICT integration. It started off really as a youth project funded by our office in Finland and an effort to break down the UN recommendations from the Violence against Children (VAC) study into a more mainstream language. The idea was to make specific areas of the study more palatable to the general population. The original VAC study was conducted over about 3 years in consultation with hundreds of children, and the goal of the broader VAC project is to increase awareness amongst children and adults, get them to learn about the effects of violence and how to prevent it and to share the knowledge with their peers.
We (Plan) organized a conference in Kenya on social change through new media in December 2008, where my colleague Anastasie Koudoh in Dakar heard of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. She started wondering whether such a system could be set up to track violence via cell phone messages. We knew from the VAC study that many incidents of violence are not reported for various reasons and decided to see if we could remedy that. We discussed internally with colleagues from our Dakar and our Finnish office and we had a lot of questions about implementation, privacy and management of the platform , etc. In January, I was lucky enough to meet for a day with Josh Nesbit and James Bon Tempo at our office in Washington DC and we discussed and sorted out some basics about implementation, data collection and privacy. We got our Ushahidi instance set up with help from our colleague Mika at the Finnish office and the folks at Ushahidi. Then I went to Benin and supported Anastasie and the staff there to conduct workshops with the children in the community, the staff, the child protection services and the Ministry of Family, consulted with them and went through the whole process of how SMS reporting might be set up. We asked whether they thought this new system would help, the type of information that they thought we might want to collect and any additional risks to people reporting that we might not have thought of. Basically making sure that everyone's input was fully integrated into the system.
TTN: What type of violence is more prominent in Benin and how would the project impact on the incidents?
LR: The Ministry of Family generously sent the latest statistics. Besides the national numbers mentioned earlier, the study reports that in 2008, about 598,521 children (31%) are forced to work in illegal conditions and that 24% are performing dangerous work activities. Gender-based violence is also still very important. 88% of girls reported having experienced physical abuse and 87% were verbally abused; 7.2% were sequestered at least once; 2.8% had undergone female genital cutting (FGC) and 1.4% of girls between the age of 2 to 14 had been raped.
Evidently, one must take into account that definitions of corporal punishment and verbal abuse can be culturally different. There is also violence at school where corporal punishment is still a commonly utilized educational method. 55% of students report having experienced corporal punishment either inside or outside the school.
So we really put the emphasis on having the support of the community when raising awareness and addressing social change around this issue. We would not order people around but we would explain why this is not the best way, and provide alternative ways with the backing of the community. It can be difficult at times if it is culturally ingrained.

Partcipants looking at the VAC project Ushahidi platform*

TTN: Have you done an evaluation of the impact of the project so far, and are alternatives to the SMS reporting system (e.g. voice reporting) being considered?
LR: Colleagues are planning a check-in the first week of November with our regional specialist on child protection. They’ll be looking at achievements and challenges in the areas of: technology (is it working? If not, why? What do we need to adjust); human resources and local capacities for managing the system; partnership and the relationship with the local and national government in terms of their ability and interest to take on and manage the system; and response – what is the current capacity to respond? How can this be improved? They’ll also do a more detailed mapping out of all the different potential child protection actors in the 2 communities, including health workers, schools, and traditional authorities, in order to see how we can best ensure the system is integrated with existing community structures and see how this sort of integration can improve local capacities to respond to reports of violence. We’ll build a forward looking plan based on this assessment of the project.
So far, the staff have stated that they are satisfied with the set-up of the project as it is now, but they know that there are a lot more reports that could be coming in. They only have received 13 reports via SMS since the start of the project, but it's difficult to assess why those potentials reports are not coming in: whether it is the medium (text messages) or other factors independent of the new system in place. During the technology assessment, we’ll look at what we can do from that side, for example, potentially integrating voice in addition to SMS and adding an improved way to track verification and follow up of reported cases.
One could argue that the project already allowed for more reports that would not have been reported if the new system were not in place. Therefore, even if we are still missing many unreported cases, we are getting a few more, and that's progress. In my opinion, it is a good start if it just gets people to think differently and look at the issue differently. Also we might not see the difference just in SMS reporting, but in reporting overall. That would then allow us to evaluate what other channels we could consider for reporting and which ones would be the most effective.
At the end of the day, though, reporting is not the biggest bottleneck—the biggest bottleneck is usually the response. Suppose we had 500 reports that came in by SMS, there would not be the capacity to respond to them. So slow growth may actually be beneficial to the project. Utilizing the system to advocate for more capacity for child services is also one aspect of the project that we look into very closely. We don't want to set up a reporting mechanism that would not be able to deliver an adequate response mechanism.
TTN: How does the response mechanism work? Who manages the reports and the responses ?
LR: We are working with the Centre de Protection Social (CPS) and they ultimately report to the Ministry of the Family and have the responsibility to follow up on any type of child abuse. Benin has a government agency and clear laws against child abuse. At the workshop, we try to gather all the local agents that have some type of responsibility who can respond in case of child abuse (social agents but also police and community leaders). So when we receive reports from any victims or witnesses, a child protection officer at our district office receives the report through FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi and makes a phone call to the point person in that area (a CPS agent or a police officer). Once we get the ‘alerts’ system functioning in Ushahidi, this can be automated. At that point, the report is officially filed into the governmental system.

TTN: Could you give a broad estimate of the cost of the project?

LR: Anastasie says that the training in Benin cost around $7,500, plus the purchase of phone/modem for the FrontLineSMS platform. We used an existing computer. That's just the simple part of the project though, and doesn't include the staff time, the broader project activities and work with the youth before/after the training, and the costs of follow up that are ongoing.

TTN: Do you think the Ushahidi platform would benefit from being translated into the local language like Yoruba ?
LR: Actually, the mapping portion of Ushahidi is not useful for the local communities. Very few of them have access to internet so the Ushahidi platform is mostly utilized by the staff and the agency, who would know the local languages, French and some English. So the SMS reports can be received in any language and the administrators would translate them into French. The web interface and the map are more of an advocacy tool than a reporting system. For example, we can share the map with community leaders, local authorities, school official and the various ministries as we have more information coming in and discuss the issue with them and look for solutions. We also have a privacy issue, so we are considering making it a private page or a password-protected page because I am not convinced that it has any utility at this point for someone working outside the child protection system. That would also offer some additional protection to the victims.
TTN: Has the government approached you about downloading the data collected so far?
LR: That's a good question. I am not sure if the data has been downloaded by the government yet. What we wanted to be careful about is involving the higher level of the government in the early phases. We wanted to work with the local authorities—with the approval of the national government, of course. We wanted to optimize the system to the point where it is easy to understand and flawless, and then advocate for it to be adopted at higher levels. We would not want to present a system that is only half-way ready and risk having it rejected.
TTN: Since it is really focused on the community, how did you approach publicizing the number to which text reports should be sent?
LR: We are working on a communication strategy and outreach. We need to not only determine the best way to advertise the number, but also take care of educating the community about the importance of awareness and how to report abuse correctly. We need them to send complete information in the text messages, otherwise we cannot help. There are also some new plug-ins in FrontlineSMS that can help with better data collection. We are also looking into possibly adding a voice feature to see if more reports would come in.
TTN: Are there any additional lessons learned or remarks that you would like to add?
LR: It is interesting to compare this project, where a structure is in place for child protection, with other places. For instance, we thought about implementing a similar project in a neighboring country, but the government there is basically not interested. So the complexity there is: how does one implement a child protection service in a more fragile state? Would we be able to work with a community-based protection group and do without the presence of an established structure? In my opinion, it's becoming increasingly important not only for projects like ours, but any Ushahidi deployment or SMS reporting in general, to think beyond data collection and address the response mechanism when there is no judicial system. One can look at Haiti and the violence against women in the aftermath of the earth quake. Sure we can talk about reporting violence, but who will respond to the reports? Maybe we should also address funding for building a response mechanism to go along with the reporting mechanism. Maybe that is where we need the next wave of innovation to focus on. Even in the aid field in general, information shortage is not usually the issue, but rather what we can do with the information, what kind of response can be triggered.
It’s a difficult issue. We are looking into supporting local protection mechanisms within the communities, but this is also tricky because the perpetrators of the violence might be parents, relatives or teachers or leaders in the community. So one of the first critical points is always awareness raising on the negative impacts of violence on children or whichever issue that you are hoping to address.
What makes a difference is when the children feel empowered to discuss the issue of violence. Children are organizing radio shows centered around violence and learning to look for help. There are also traditional justice systems in most of the remote communities that deal with the issue of violence and we try to work with them whenever it's possible.


* All photos belong to the VAC project in Benin and are published with their permission.

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