Founded by a 23-year-old Pakistani, Hera Hussain, Chayn – a website for Pakistani women who have been victims of domestic abuse – was launched this year with the help of 70 volunteers across the globe.
While the portal aids in raising awareness of emotional and physical abuse, dealing with abuse, informing Pakistani women of their rights, etc, it also stands as an online support system that allows women to share their stories of abuse and trauma in a section on the website called Catharsis Room.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Hussain, a freelance marketing/events professional, spoke about what led her to launch Chayn, her network of passionate volunteers and the future of the site.
What made you decide to launch Chayn?
As far as I can look back, I have always been passionate about empowering women. Despite growing up in a happy family in Lahore, it became clear to me that most women were in fact, not happy in their marriage. They were either forced or pressurized to marry someone they did not know or like, or lived a life at the beck and call of their in-laws and an abusive husband.
Pakistan is the third-most dangerous country in the world for women where up to 80 percent of women will face domestic violence in their lifetimes. It’s shocking how acceptable domestic violence is in Pakistani society and the battle women have to fight to prove to themselves and others that they are not to blame for domestic violence. It is never the fault of the victim. Women do not ask for abuse. The responsibility of the abuse lies with the abuser – always.
I spent eight months helping two women close to me get out of abusive relationships. I did a lot of research for my friends on what help was available in Pakistan, what their options were and found them self-help guides to depression, anxiety and online courses to study. When I told them that they were in fact in an abusive relationship and that it wasn’t their fault, it seemed to turn a switch on inside them, which propelled them to quit the relationship. That’s when I realized that information is power. Access to information about mental and emotional well-being as well as practical information on law and finance can be empowering for women. It was clear to me that women were not sure what help was available to them in Pakistan or what their options were. There was a lot of confusion around legal rights. This was stopping them from making informed decisions about staying or leaving a relationship. So one Sunday I thought to myself; wouldn’t it be great if I used all my research to make a digital platform to empower women? And that’s what I did.
How does the website work?
Chayn is solely run by dedicate and passionate volunteers who work on this part-time. It took 70 volunteers from around the world to put the Chayn website together. Now there are 35 dedicated volunteers who are continuing to work on the site. There are no managers at Chayn. We work through collaborating with each other across borders and time zones using Facebook, Skype, Google Plus and Google Docs. Most of the team is very young but very accomplished. The average Chayner is in their 20s but we do have some experienced psychologists and professionals whose insight becomes invaluable when working on projects. If any volunteer wants to do a particular project for Chayn, I brainstorm with them on it – we present it to the rest of the group, see who else wants to join in and then the volunteer leads the project. We have 20 sub-projects going on at the moment. Everything at Chayn is democratic and crowd-sourced. That’s how we started and we have no intentions of changing that.
Your website touches upon religion and abuse, the psychological implications of abuse, and women’s rights. Tell us a little about Chayn’s research process: what went into the data compilation; was it a long process?
The content on the website is crowd-sourced. We researched online to see what content existed already (journals, blogs, books, charity websites) and combined it with the personal experiences of our networks. The next step was to get it checked or written by volunteers with relevant experience in this field (psychologist, lawyers, doctors, NGO professionals). When we started, I was determined to treat this as a lean startup. The website, as you see it now, is the minimum viable product. I gave myself and my team an ultimatum of three months because I knew that things never get done if you leave them for too long. All processes for research and write-ups were optimized so that it could be achieved in our timescale. Motivation was key for this.
The good thing is that we use a Wiki model, so we invite visitors to the website to submit alterations or new ideas for content. The content on the website changes constantly. The other day, we got a submission about a website that lists rental property in Pakistan – so added the link to the housing page in an hour. It’s a crowd-sourced website – it’ll always be in draft mode.
Fear and shame are two main factors that prevent Pakistani women from seeking help regarding domestic violence: how does Chayn set out to change that?
We were very mindful of the cultural sensitivities in this issue. However, in one way, we wanted to disrupt the existing charity model. We are a digital platform, which means women can view the site and interact with it remotely, at their own ease, anonymously, potentially without others finding out. We had the idea that if we made this platform, women will share. Not many people agreed with this but we thought if it worked in other countries it should work in internet-savvy circles in Pakistan. We were pleased to find results from a survey The Express Tribune did about the use of digital platforms for combating domestic violence when they ran a feature on us. Sixty percent of respondents said they would feel safer seeking help online if they were facing domestic abuse. Seventy percent of respondents agreed that websites, blogs and social media are a good platform to discuss domestic abuse.
The website also serves as a platform for storytelling. Women in Pakistan often feel unheard, and scared of being judged almost always. But anonymous sharing allows an open dialogue. For the volunteers and myself the best day is when we get a submission. For instance, the other day we received this on the Catharsis room that just uplifted the spirits of the whole team:
“If I could say anything to someone who has experienced domestic violence it is this – you are so incredibly strong and brave, more than you realize. Abusers thrive on breaking your spirit but you will not be broken. When I felt like my life was at rock bottom I reached out for help and it reaffirmed my faith in humanity and myself. Your abuser will try to convince you the world is a hard, cruel place and everyone wants to take advantage of you. He will make you feel worthless and crazy. Don’t believe the lie. There is so much kindness and love out there and your life and your truth is as worthy as anyone else’s.”
Reading posts like this will empower women who are experiencing domestic violence. Some of the other posts are about insecurities and abuse – reading those stories will allow women to feel less isolated and alone.
Do you have any plans of taking the mission of Chayn to women who don’t have access to computers and the internet?
This is a question that is close to the heart of everybody at Chayn, especially me. Instinctively, I would love to make it more accessible. However, realistically, we are restricted by our own resources. As a digital platform, it is difficult to empower women in rural areas. For that you would need infrastructure like shelters, funds to give out as loans, physical security and full-time staff. Chayn does not have the resources for that. In my research I also found that while there were many organizations that could provide these services to rural women, there were none for women who live in cities and have access to resources like money, education and transport. These women have the opportunity to leave or cope better with their difficult situations and can make use of a digital platform. In the spirit of making it more accessible for a wider diaspora of women, we are translating the whole website into Urdu.
Where do you envision Chayn in the future?
Team Chayn has some very exciting and ambitious plans ahead. We are in the process of launching a fundraising campaign to fund our ambitions. I envisage Chayn becoming a global network of websites that empower women facing domestic violence to make informed decisions, but also connecting them to key resources to act on it like university scholarships, emergency escape loan, training, online courses and shelters. We have already been asked to do a Chayn India and we are hoping to launch that early next year. The challenge is to do all of these things in an efficient and lean way so that scaling doesn’t become a cost multiplier. The plan is to launch Chayn India and Bangladesh, create a pop-up shelter program and establish a scholarship partnership within a year.
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