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Faculty & Staff, Research, Community Impact

New Tool Being Developed to Aid Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

November 11, 2022

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About the project

The School of Social Work and the Center for Social and Behavioral Science are leading a multidisciplinary effort to develop a tool to be used on the Illinois app, a mobile app used by University of Illinois students, faculty, and staff. The tool will have multiple uses and resources for those who have suffered gender-based violence.

The figures are sobering.

Forty-eight percent of college-aged people have suffered at least one incidence of intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. Twenty-eight percent have had at least one act of sexual violence committed against them.

This data comes from a campus survey conducted in 2021 by Dr. Rachel Garthe of the School of Social Work and Dr. Nicole Allen, then of the Psychology Department, now at Vanderbilt University.

“Gender-based violence remains a pervasive social issue, particularly among college populations,” says Garthe, who is principal investigator for a new study funded by the US Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.

Multidisciplinary Team Convened by CSBS

Garthe is leading a multidisciplinary team of researchers in designing and developing information and resources that will be of help to students who have been targets of gender-based violence (GBV). The content will be embedded on the Illinois app, the university’s official campus app that is part of the Rokwire project. Rokwire is an open-source mobile software platform developed by the Smart, Healthy Communities Initiative at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The research team includes Garthe, Allen, Dr. William Sullivan of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, Dr. Sanjay Patel of the College of Engineering, Gabrielle Schwartz, MS, of the Women’s Resources Center, and Drs. Kaylee Lukacena and Cristina Alvarez-Mingote of the Center for Social & Behavioral Science (CSBS).

“The CSBS helped convene this group, which is passionate about supporting GBV survivors on the UIUC campus and brainstorming ways that the Illinois app can be utilized by students to provide more resources and supports,” Garthe says.

The CSBS, which funded the 2021 study led by Garthe and Allen, has also been instrumental in procuring the grant for this new study.

“The CSBS is very connected with the team at Rokwire,” Garthe notes. “Through conversations with CSBS and Rokwire, the idea developed to create a GBV capability within the Illinois app on the Rokwire platform.”

“This project speaks directly to CSBS’s mission in that it brings multidisciplinary research expertise to address a key societal problem, in this case gender-based violence,” says Alvarez-Mingote, senior associate director for CSBS. “We saw the opportunity to bring researchers around this important topic together and worked very hard to make it happen. It’s a pleasure to work with very passionate and highly committed researchers and so it makes me very happy that we were awarded the DOJ funding.”

Garthe says she is grateful for the CSBS in part because they were the funders of the original study that illustrated the need GBV resources on campus. “The researchers there have been phenomenal to work with,” she says. “Without their connection, we wouldn’t have been able to apply for this grant.

“Kaylee’s area of research is in GBV prevention, so she’s been a great think partner and she’s helped write a lot. Cristina is doing a lot of project coordination, writing behind-the-scenes agreements that we had to submit for the grant, and she’ll continue with a lot of that oversight as we go forward.”

Determining Features for Users

Through the concept generation and prototype design stage, the research team and app developers will conduct focus groups and interviews to learn more about the core features necessary to provide resources and supports to GBV survivors, Garthe says. “We’ll also focus on understanding the types of barriers the GBV capability in the app could overcome, look to optimize usability and accessibility, and understand users’ safety and privacy concerns,” she says. “Finally, we’ll be identifying ways to eventually disseminate information about the GBV capability across campus.”

Through the project, the researchers will be assessing how students access and engage with the GBV capability and examine the degree to which the capability fosters perceived empowerment, safety strategies, knowledge of resources, and help-seeking and reporting behaviors, Garthe adds.

Using Technology to Aid Survivors

As it will be embedded in the Illinois app, the GBV capability will be readily accessible to students.

“The current generation of college students spends a majority of their time navigating a digital landscape, relying heavily on technology to communicate, socialize, and access resources,” Garthe says. “This project helps us provide the support that GBV survivors urgently need.”

Garthe notes that the GBV capability will give students options, because “every survivor knows what’s best for them, when they want to report an incident or if they want to report it. It will guide them through the process, providing them choices to move forward in the ways that will best help them to cope with their situation.”

The team plans to link both campus and community resources, contact numbers, and websites on the Illinois app. “We’ve also talked about demystifying the process, showing students what it would look like to, say, report to the Women’s Resources Center or to RACES [Rape Advocacy, Counseling, & Education Services] or Courage Connection, what the next steps would be,” Garthe says. “Sometimes not knowing the process can be a barrier to reporting.”

The Need is Real, the Challenges Steep

The need to provide such help is clear. The issue of gender-based violence is neither new nor abating. In fact, during the early stages of the pandemic, the incidences increased. Garthe attributes the increase to people sheltering in place, oftentimes in abusive circumstances.

“Rates are starting to go back to where they were before the pandemic, but they’re still super high,” she says.

Making matters worse, the rates of reporting gender-based violence is low.

“Despite the profound impacts of these acts of violence, victims rarely seek formal help or report GBV,” Garthe says. “Thus, support remains rare.”

More than half of survivors (57%) on UIUC’s campus had not told anyone about their experience of GBV before completing a campus climate survey, according to Garthe and Allen’s 2021 study. Only 12 percent of female survivors and less than 2 percent of male survivors reported an incident to any university body.

“They feel stigmatized and shamed by what happened to them,” Garthe says. “So, they fear rejection, isolation, retaliation, and discomfort in talking to a professional.” They also run up against a lack of resources, access challenges, and a reluctance of being labeled a victim, she adds.

Instead, some survivors seek help from informal sources: friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, current non-abusive partners. “Unfortunately, these informal sources might not be equipped to provide adequate advice and support,” Garthe says. “In some cases, they might not believe the survivor, or turn the blame on them, and make things worse.

“Yet, research has shown that failing to receive the needed support can often aggravate survivors’ circumstances.”

Benefiting UIUC and Beyond

The study is funded through 2025 and will involve, literally, a cast of more than a thousand.

“We’ll be conducting focus groups in the spring with undergrads, graduate students, and staff who work with this topic across campus,” Garthe says as she talks about the project ramping up. “We’ll also be surveying a thousand students at three timepoints—baseline, six months, and one year—to analyze change over time and assess intervention effects.”

The benefits of the study won’t be restricted to the UIUC campus. The team will track data and disseminate it in academic and professional settings.

“This is a development-focused grant,” Garthe says. “We’re not set on one thing; we’re open to shaping it. But eventually I believe we’ll be well positioned to contribute to a very small literature that evaluates this issue and make sure that our approach is effective and making a difference on college campuses.

“Our eventual goal is to connect with other colleges that use the open-source Rokwire platform so they can do something similar on their campus to help survivors of gender-based violence. We’re all very motivated by that.”

Alvarez-Mingote shares Garthe’s excitement.

“Implementing the DOJ project can have a huge impact for GBV survivors on our campus,” she says. “I also expect that our project here at Illinois will influence how other campuses around the country address GBV. It can certainly change the landscape.”

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