Speaking at the Novatore Impact Summit in Riga, Latvia, Dr. Kristen Ali Eglinton from Footage Foundation announced an innovative messaging program that has given close to 1,000 women trapped in war-torn Ukraine hope through compassionate text messages. She now plans to implement a similar program in the USA to deliver vital information on reproductive health and mental wellbeing across the USA.
FemSMS is a one-way trauma-informed compassionate text messaging service that shares information and resources (for example, hotlines, articles, websites) with women, equipping them with trusted information and offering hope and social connection.
FemSMS aims to address information poverty in crisis settings by sharing resources around subjects like gender-based violence and mental health. The program uses SMS or text messaging for many reasons, not least because it will reach women regardless of the type of mobile device they're using, and even if the internet is cut-off.
"From what I know so far, this is the first time in a war zone that an iterative human centered design process has been used to build an information sharing system. It is also the first compassion based trauma-informed SMS system built through this process," says Dr. Eglinton.
The trauma-informed messages are delivered using compassionate language and insights, to end information poverty, increase resilience and build social connection and belonging.
"We built FemSMS to address a lack of access to trustworthy information in crisis settings and other challenging geographies where the most vulnerable do not have access to crucial information. Our focus is on getting much needed information out to those who are hardest to reach. We developed the program using SMS or text messaging for many reasons. We know for example that our messages will still get through if the Internet is cut off and that SMS is essential in low resource settings," says Dr. Eglinton.
There are three key principles to the FemSMS program.
It is trauma-informed. These text messages start with connection and understanding, and provide essential information to those experiencing the trauma of crisis, war and displacement.
It is compassion focused. All messages are set to inspire connection through common experiences. For example, rather than simply giving information on violence the texts open up conversation, taking into account the shame around violence and how difficult it is to speak about.
It is human centered and elicits the voice of women and their lived experience. By designing texts based on needs, sending them across the country, and modifying those texts based on phone and online surveys, Ukrainian women's voices sit at the heart of this work.
Texts about gender based violence, trafficking prevention, and mental health, including information on how war impacts everyday life from menstruation and sleep patterns to water and food safety are based on language rooted in compassion and connection. This means they are more likely to be heard and absorbed by those women who need the information most.
The texts themselves are often delivered with trigger warnings so as not to isolate the recipient or ignite fear. Because the communications take immediate trauma into consideration, they allow the recipients to receive the information in a constructive and empathetic way not usually seen in a war zone.
"Having women participate in research puts their voices at the heart of the work, generates important data, and is in itself an intervention – this is not research for research sake. These women not only receive life-saving messages that are essential to their wellbeing, they know that they've volunteered to take an essential part in the rebuilding of their own country. In fact, early data suggest 75% of recipients relayed messages to others; 90% found the messages "extremely" or "very" useful; moreover 98% of women surveyed appreciated the compassionate tone of the messages," says Dr. Eglinton.
Given the impact and resonance that this program has had in Ukraine, Footage Foundation is now piloting FemSMS in the USA to address information poverty and provide trusted messages and communications about reproductive health and mental wellbeing.
In her keynote speech Dr. Eglinton explained how her organization has distributed thousands of dollars of cash to those most vulnerable and, in part, to mitigate risks of trafficking and gender-based violence. It was this work that inspired the creation of the FemSMS program.
"In Ukraine, on February 24th we began immediately providing unconditional cash transfers through our program called Compassionate Cash. We know unconditional cash protects against risks like trafficking, but is also a trauma-informed form of care as it instills power and agency, and supports the mental and physical health of people - something desperately and immediately needed in crisis," says Dr. Eglinton.
"The Compassionate Cash program is at once research, a leadership intervention, and a participatory form of aid – our mechanism for delivery is unique in that we employ young women who were part of our earlier public diplomacy work in Kyiv in 2017. Because we use these trusted networks, we are able to deliver aid to the hardest to reach, promoting inclusion, as well as security, safety, and dignity. We know these aspects are the first steps towards mental wellbeing, and we know mental wellbeing is directly connected to economic empowerment and is so important because what these young women learn will often serve the needs of their communities in long-lasting ways that emergency cash cannot.
"The more challenging the landscape, the more oppression, violence, and injustice we see, as a feminist organization – the stronger our resolve becomes to do everything humanely possible through compassion to elevate the voices of those who are most at risk of gender based violence and displacement wherever they are in the world," she concludes.
About Footage Foundation: Footage is a U.S. based feminist organization raising voices to elevate lives through creative research, wellbeing interventions, and advocacy—all advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Footage has received nine Public Diplomacy awards from the U.S. Department of State to design and implement programs focusing on women and violence primarily in the Post-Soviet region. A nonprofit organization founded by PhD colleagues at Cambridge University, Footage uses narrative and expressive approaches empowering young women around the world to connect as agents of social change. Our programs provide connection — a community for women on the frontlines of gender inequality where their ideas matter and their voices count. We have a particular focus on forced displacement and gender-based violence and believe compassion and connection are as important to sustainable development as food and water.
To learn more about how you can donate, or join Footage in solidarity and advocacy, and help to raise the voices of those at risk from gender-based violence (GBV) and displacement and visit footageproject.org and follow Footage on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.