This post is by Karen Bentley, the National Director of the Safety Net Australia Project.

At the beginning of November, I was honoured to be invited to an Expert Group Meeting of the Joint Programme on Essential Services for Women and Girls subject to Violence.

The meeting brought together a wide range of experts from across the world to discuss “Optimal Entry Points for Safe Technology in the provision of Essential Services.

I was invited to speak and present about our Telstra-WESNET Safe Connections program which provides free smartphones and $30 prepaid credit to women experiencing domestic and family violence, and training for frontline workers about how to deal with technology abuse.

The Joint Program on Essential Services was established in 2013 and is the joint initiative of five UN agencies including UNWomen, UNFPA, WHO, UNODC and the UNDP. It was initially established with funding from the Australian and Spanish governments.

To quote the UNWomen website: The Programme identifies the essential services to be provided by the health, social services, police and justice sectors as well as guidelines for the coordination of essential services and the governance of coordination processes and mechanisms. Service delivery guidelines for the core elements of each essential service have been identified to ensure the delivery of high-quality services, particularly for low- and middle-income countries, for women and girls experiencing violence. Taken together, these elements comprise the “Essential services package”[1].

There are four main areas that the Essential services package focuses on: (1) community services, (2) Health services, (3) Police and Justice, and (4) Coordination and Governance of services.  The program has produced some excellent guides that can be used by governments anywhere in the world to ensure the right services are available to women and girls subject to violence.

As part of phase two of the program, the Joint Programme is interested in what role technology can play in assisting governments with rolling out essential services. And this is where WESNET’s Safe Connection Program comes in.

It is currently estimated that over half the world’s population now has access to the internet. In 2000, just four percent of the five billion people living in low- and middle-income countries had access to a mobile phone. By 2015, this figure had risen to 94 percent of the six billion people living in low- and middle-income countries.[2] So the UN Joint Programme was very interested in hearing about the collaboration between WESNET and Telstra that provides new smartphones to Women experiencing violence.

Over the past four years, WESNET has been collaborating with Telstra to provide free phones to women who need them. The phones are used for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which is being able to call support services or emergency services.  Having a mobile phone also helps women impacted by violence to stay connected with their support network and access important services while they re-establishing their lives.

But just handing out smartphones to women isn’t enough. In fact, phones are not like other material aid.  They are a fully functioning communication device, and with that comes risks for some women, particularly if the abuser is misusing technology as a tactic of power and coercive control.  So WESNET also provides training to the frontline workers in the network of agencies that distribute the phones to women.

The three day meeting in Vienna was filled with presentations on different ways technology can make a difference to essential services. After a rundown on the Essential Services Program by some of the UN partner agency reps at the meeting, we had a great overview about privacy and technology from Pam Dixon of World Privacy Forum and a run down on Apps from NNEDV’s Rachel Gibson, followed by a wide range of presentations for all over the world: from the Gender Management Information System being implemented by the Office for Women in Pakistan, to the evaluation of 218 Rape Alert Apps in Canada, and Podcasts in Ethiopia – the presentations were interesting and generated much discussion as the meeting progressed.

With lots of great discussion and ideas for the future, I look forward to seeing how some of these ideas will be incorporated into the essentials services package. I also bring back a wealth of information about new and innovative ways that technology can be used to support and prevent violence against women and girls.

[1] See

[2] Malaka Gharib, Surprising Charts About Smoking, Unemployment And Mobile Phones, NPR (Jan. 14, 2017),