Facebook is donating the first prize to the winner of a hackathon tackling domestic violence held in Jerusalem this week in memory of Michal Sela, a domestic abuse victim murdered by her husband in October 2019 in front of their eight-month-old child.
The hackathon called Safe@Home was hosted by the Michal Sela Forum (Hebrew) founded after the murder by Sela’s sister, Lily Ben Ami, to save “the next murder victim through creative ‘out of the box’ thinking and the use of advanced technologies,” as well as in prevention and “raising awareness to warning signals.” It was held over three days starting on May 18, on what would have been Sela’s 33rd birthday. The event included some 1,500 participants and over 100 registered ideas for life-saving technologies. Participants including programmers, innovators, and entrepreneurs worked together with experts in domestic violence from the courts and law enforcement and with tech partners such as Google, Wix, Amdocs, Waze, and Intel, among others.
Seven finalists were hosted on the final leg of the hackathon on Wednesday at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in the presence of government ministers and officials, high-tech executives, and leaders of civil society organizations.
The winning idea was an app called Stay Tuned, which poses as a news website but allows the user to stealthily send for help using a number of functions. With the app, users can issue hidden messages to relatives, alert emergency services, secretly record a given situation by saying user-defined safe words, shaking the mobile device, or pressing a special button.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced in a post on Wednesday that the company would support the hackathon and donate a first prize of NIS 33,000 ($9,380) “to mark what should have been 33 years for Michal.”
“Millions of women around the world face violence and domestic abuse,” Sandberg wrote in the post alongside a picture of Sela. “This was already an epidemic before COVID-19 – but now the United Nations is warning there could be an extra 31 million cases of gender-based violence over the next six months due to lockdowns. This is an emergency and it needs urgent action,” she added.
Facebook Israel CEO Adi Soffer Teeni was on the hackathon’s judging panel, alongside Sela’s sister Lily Ben Ami, Minister for Regional Cooperation Gilad Erdan, CEO of Microsoft Israel Ronit Atad, VP Mapping and Localization for Mobileye Tal Babaioff, Director-General of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation Efrat Duvdevani, among others.
The other six finalist ideas were for a system called MedFlag that analyses digital medical records to find possible victims of domestic violence or those at risk, including those who request medical treatment for issues not directly connected to abuse; Safety Strap, a smartwatch strap or bracelet containing sensors that measure physiological indicators of the wearer’s level of distress and sends automatic updates and warnings to pre-selected contacts; WeHearYa, a small hidden recording device activated by voices over 60dB, and which can be incorporated into a hair tie, a pendant or button; Salvatio Push, a wearable silicone device that updates pre-selected contacts on the woman’s location and the type of emergency; HearMe, a system for anonymous reporting of distress to local authorities using real-time recordings; and Safe and Sound, a hidden app activated by a series of pre-defined words said by the user that can alert contacts and/or emergency authorities.
(The presentations can be viewed here.)
Three of the finalists will be selected to receive business mentoring from the Michal Sela Forum.
A call to action against domestic violence
“For many women such as Michal, this initiative is late in coming. Too late. But for many other women, it can be a lifeline,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in his address at the event.
“With each murder of this kind, entire families are blown apart. Their children, parents, brothers and sisters all pay a heavy price. And not just them. Society pays a price. Violence against women is not just a problem for women. It harms us all, including men. It harms us as a society. We must, all of us, prevent it, fight it, expose it, and end it. That includes using unpleasant and impolite means, using advanced technologies, based on the understanding that violence against women is not an inevitable fact of life,” said Rivlin.
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The president said he would devote the final year of his presidency “to the important battle against domestic violence,” calling for a national response and a “plan of action” from the government.
“The time has come to end violence against women and to set national goals to reduce domestic abuse in a real plan of action. This terrorism against women must end,” Rivlin said.
Speaking at the event, Ben Ami said, “Michal did not know her life was in any danger. We didn’t know either. Michal was a social worker, a butterfly by nature. Michal believed everyone. Really. A flower child, free, colorful, creative, full of love, giving and wanting to help and heal disadvantaged people. Her death left us with the task of continuing her light and reaching out. How could this have happened? To us? Michali, my little sister, could we have saved you?”
“We cannot go back in time. We can move forward. So, we are here, to save the next victim of murder. Israel is a global start-up and counter-terrorism superpower. Today, together, we have taken a first small step. For the future. The goal: to turn Israel into a global superpower in preventing domestic terrorism. The aim: zero murders a year,” Ben Ami said.
Since the beginning of this year, eight women and a 10-month-old infant were murdered in acts of domestic abuse, according to Hagit Peer, chairwoman of the Movement of Working and Volunteering Women (Naamat). The latest murder occurred over the weekend when a 22-year-old woman was strangled to death by her boyfriend in Ramat Gan.
According to an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) report cited by i24 News, 68,000 women were victims of domestic violence or were subjected to threats of violence in 2018. A report (Hebrew) published last year by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry showed that in 2018, 6,488 women sought assistance with 113 shelters across the country. The ministry also noted an increase of 160 percent of calls to women’s hotlines between 2014 and 2018.
“The moral responsibility is first and foremost that of the country and the police, and to protect that innocent woman at risk before putting resources to protect members of crime organizations,” said Erdan, Israel’s new minister for regional cooperation and formerly the minister of public security.
“The fight against gender terrorism comes before the fight against organized crime. In my role at the UN, I promise to continue my commitment to this fight,” added Erdan, who is also set to be confirmed as Israeli ambassador to the UN (he will be replaced at the regional cooperation minister by Ofir Akunis).
Israel’s new Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Welfare Itzik Shmuli said: “The responsibility that falls on me is clear: to get the entire Israeli government to put forward the resources required to establish a system to monitor and get violent men away, to widen the support for victims, to strengthen coordination between the various bodies and more. We will be judged on the results, not by what we say.”
If you are a victim of domestic abuse or violence, you can call (or text) one of these hotlines for support and information: dial 118 or text 055-700-0128 for the national hotline for reporting domestic abuse; 1-800-220000 for the WIZO nationwide emergency hotline; 1202 for the women’s hotline nationwide or 04-6566813 for the women’s hotline in Arabic; 1-800-292-333 or 972-2-633-8927 for the Bat Melech Hotline for Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox women.