From UNAIDS Asia-Pacific
We hear a lot about cyber stalking and cyber violence and the dangers of social media for young people in relationships. However an entrepreneurial young group from India is exploiting the power of Snapchat, a popular smartphone app among teenagers, to provide counselling to young women and men in abusive relationships on the sub-continent. They are Avani Parekh, Nida Sheriff and Rajshekar Patil. The threesome created an account called lovedoctordotin in September 2014 and have been providing counselling services ever since. To date the hotline has answered more than 47,000 questions about relationships, love and sexual health.
UNAIDS caught up with Avani, Nida and Raj over skype recently. Avani is the founder of LoveDoctor (www.lovedoctor.in) and is a trained counselor with more than eight years of experience in counseling on domestic abuse and sexual assault. Nida is the manager of Chayn India which is a web platform for women experiencing domestic violence and Raj is an advertising creative director with TBWA\India.
(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS).
UNAIDS: What made you decide to use Snapchat to address the issue of relationship abuse?
Raj: Teens are now moving away from Facebook and more onto Snapchat and Instagram. Snapchat has this unique feature where messages last only for a few seconds and are deleted automatically. No one’s exploited this amazing feature. So we thought why not? With lovedoctordotin they don’t have to come to us, we go to them.
With our service they have someone to go to privately and there’s no record of it.
Avani: Teens are afraid of exposure. Even to talk to a family doctor, they are scared that someone would see them or that the same doctor would treat their families and somehow someone would find out. There’s this culture of silence with teenagers because they don’t know who to come out to and they don’t want to get in trouble mainly because it’s taboo. We culturally try to minimize the bad things going on in our lives and amplify the good things. What we’re trying to do is give young people somewhere confidential to come to as well as using this space to create awareness of what abuse is.
UNAIDS: Can you tell us a little bit more about how lovedoctordotin works?
Avani: Everyday we have a Snapchat story. Chayn India and I create the content. Our stories are about different aspects of abuse. For example, yesterday it was about moving on from an abusive relationship. If someone adds our snapcode, they are able to chat with us confidentially. They are thanked for contacting us and are sent a link with all the information we think that they should have about abuse and how to deal with it or who to contact – It is like a guide book. They share with us their stories and their questions. I encourage them to read the guide, answer their questions and check with them about how they’re doing afterwards. Snapchat has fantastic features such as live videos – you can actually video message each other in real time. In a couple of instances when things are a bit more complicated, we send videos back and forth. That makes the young people feel more connected since it’s not just a static chat platform and they feel more connected to us.
UNAIDS: What are some of the other common types of abuse teens face in relationships?
Nida: In India, when someone thinks about relationship abuse, they think marriage. In a typical Indian family, if a girl tells her parents about her boyfriend abusing her- the first thing the parent would say is why do you have a boyfriend? They don’t understand the concept of being in a relationship before marriage. I think counsellors, teachers, parents etc. don’t realise that teenagers are going through complicated stuff. They think their relationships are frivolous and immature.
Isolation is a big one. The abusive partner will make their partners feel very isolated from their friends and family.
Avani: Yes, they say things like “I don’t want you to talk to anyone else, don’t dress like this and attract attention, I want you all to myself – don’t bring attention to yourself.” It comes across as possessiveness and some women see this as a sign of love and affection but it’s not. Terrorizing someone’s self-esteem and blaming the partner as the reason for this abuse is common. Many young people fall for that and think that there’s something wrong with them.
UNAIDS: In your experience as counsellors, what are the common kinds of abuse that men face in abusive relationships ?
Avani: Men are not excluded from any of the forms of abuse. It’s just as common for them but with this additional layer of shame and guilt that they face with the forced idea of masculinity. It gets even more complicated in same sex relationships. Whatever structures that are in place in India are set up for women in marriages and there is nothing for young unmarried girls or men who are abused. They stay silent about what they endure.
UNAIDS: What are the challenges you face with lovedoctordotin on Snapchat?
Avani: We have some challenges with the app. While the messages disappear, you can still see that somebody has added us as a friend, people who see that would understand that we are a counselling facility – partners of victims can sometimes find out. It’s not entirely foolproof. Technology is great but it has its limitations. If somebody is desperately trying to track you then I guess they will. We are also criticised. We get a lot of trolls as well. A lot of creepy comments from people. Not everybody has been friendly but that’s to be expected with anything that you put online. We’re immune to it now and it doesn’t affect us.
UNAIDS: What do you hope to achieve by this endeavour?
Nida: The bottom line is helping people in abusive relationships. It is the most important goal.. Another thing is to raise awareness and bring to light that teens actually go through these things. These resources at their fingertips are a source of empowerment right now. Technology and social media isn’t just about fun and games, we wanted to show that it can be turned into a support space to help teens with violence and abuse.
Raj: It’s been a fantastic journey. We’re hoping that responsible groups start using similar platforms to talk to youth about bullying, drugs, depression, exam stress etc.
UNAIDS: What are the next steps for this initiative?
Nida: We’re just looking for trained counsellors and listeners to expand the team. It would be great if this movement could go global and get everybody involved. A global movement of using Snapchat for good, how great would that be!
Avani: We invite anyone that wants to do this in their communities, in their different languages, in their schools etc. We encourage them to get in touch with us. This has gotten bigger than any of us expected and we’re looking for people to take the movement globally. We can share tips and guide you through the process. If you’re interested in being part of the movement feel free to contact us at – firstname.lastname@example.org