WESNET: Meet the nerds helping women experiencing technology-facilitated abuse

Karen Bentley, National Director of WESNET and WESNET Technology Safety Specialists Sarah Biordi (left) and Susan Swain (right)

Trigger warning: Domestic and family violence content.

One-in-three Australian women have experienced physical violence, and one-in-six sexual violence. On average, one woman every week is murdered in Australia at the hands of her partner or ex-partner.

Domestic abuse experts are warning that the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s safety are only just beginning to be felt in Australia. As isolation restrictions begin to ease, the risks for women with abusive partners or family members will remain heightened for months and potentially years.

We meet the women at WESNET helping women tackle technology-related abuse.

What is technology-facilitated abuse?

Not all abuse is physical. Many abusers are now using technology as a way to control and have power over their victims. Domestic violence support workers have found up to 98% of their clients are experiencing some form of technology-facilitated abuse. There is emerging evidence to suggest that when domestic violence goes technological, women experience heightened levels of fear, and there is no escape. Even if they leave, the technology means it still feels like the abuser is with them 24/7.

Common abuse tactics include controlling or breaking the woman’s phone, abusive and threatening messages and phone calls, hacking social media, accessing online banking and email accounts, and non-consensual image sharing. To monitor a woman’s location and activities an abuser might hack her devices or accounts, install tracking apps, or give his children devices or toys with inbuilt covert listening or tracking apps which he controls. When this happens many women feel they have to get off technology.

Getting off technology is not the answer. Women already lag behind men in their use of technology. The Australian Digital-Inclusion index shows that young women 14-24 are already less digitally included than males of the same age, and the gap widens with each older age cohort. This technological disadvantage, combined with the fact that Australian women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner, in an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. 

What is WESNET doing to help?

WESNET is the peak body representing Australia’s domestic and family violence services. Its team are the ‘tech nerds’ of the sector, working at the intersection between technology and violence against women. WESNET works towards interrupting a perpetrator’s ability to control and abuse, by training domestic violence workers in how to recognise tech abuse, and how to integrate tech safety into each client’s personal risk and safety plan. WESNET’s practitioner and client resources can be accessed at techsafety.org.au.

A new phone can be a lifesaving tool for a woman escaping violence, ensuring she can safely remain in contact with support services, and providing her with the privacy and security to maintain her safety. In partnership with Telstra, who donate more than 7000 phones  phones a year, WESNET trains and supports domestic and family violence workers across Australia, to safely distribute phones to women and children at risk. Federal funding for the program ceases in March 2021. If you’re interested in supporting the program, donate here.

WESNET also works with technology companies to help them make their products and services safer, reducing the risk of unintentionally compromising the safety and privacy of victim-survivors.

Joanne’s story

Joanne and her 3 children had experienced severe domestic violence and she had been forced to move house and replace her mobile phone several times. But each time, it was only a matter of days before her abuser found her again. And each time he would call her on her new phone just to let her know. Joanne felt so unsafe she avoided turning her phone on.

Joanne’s support worker gave her a Telstra Safe Connections phone and worked with her to identify how the perpetrator was locating her. They reviewed her online accounts and took measures to prevent her abusive ex from accessing her information. They set up a new Google account, and enhanced the privacy and safety settings on her phone. Since then, Joanne has received no calls from the perpetrator, and he hasn’t found her again. Joanne expressed it was the first time she had felt safe in many years.

If you or someone you know needs support about sexual assault or domestic and family violence please ring or visit 1800RESPECT for 24/7 counselling support. 

You can read more about WESNET here.