When data becomes a lifeline

26 August 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Read time 8 min.
Women at work: Maria Rosa Lorini (second from right) with (from left) Nontembiso Mevana, Lucia Salvoldi (Lorini’s mother) and Nomfundo Pilisani. <b>Photo</b> Claudio Farinelli.
Women at work: Maria Rosa Lorini (second from right) with (from left) Nontembiso Mevana, Lucia Salvoldi (Lorini’s mother) and Nomfundo Pilisani. Photo Claudio Farinelli.

Dr Maria Rosa Lorini’s journey of scholarship and activism criss-crosses two continents: from Pisa to Paris to sub-Saharan Africa. Now working with local communities, her #Data4Women campaign is connecting women who face gender-based violence. Lockdown has deepened their isolation, and for many even joining a support group risks partner abuse.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) postdoctoral fellow in the Centre in Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) in the Department of Information Systems has worked on many collective empowerment projects in the townships of Cape Town, supported by ICTs. For the past 12 years she’s worked with NGOs and community-based organisations and activists. Her mission is to turn the tide on gender-based violence.

“I want to make a difference,” Lorini said. And, as a researcher, she could only embrace what ICT4D calls ‘action research’. She supervises postgraduates and lectures about ethics and responsibility at master’s level – particularly in relation to action research and ICT4D.

Maria Rosa Lorini
Maria Rosa Lorini and volunteers at a community soup kitchen. Photo Claudio Farinelli.

Lockdown isolation has severely challenged civic and other organisations, as well as activists like Lorini who rely on connecting women – specifically in the target areas of Philippi, Nyanga and Khayelitsha, where the new groups are based.

Together with the Gardens Community Action Network she belongs to, Lorini’s answer was the #Data4Women initiative, which builds on her previous work with organisations such as Cesvi, Sizakuyenza, the Community Organisation Resource Centre and Slum Dwellers International to assist women’s groups that are mobilised around saving schemes. This expanded to sensitising them about HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, and drugs and alcohol.

“In 2008 we set up the first caravan and transformed it into a mobile clinic to reach people in the informal settlements. We matched HIV-testing activities with workshops, training and mobilisation campaigns.”

Lorini managed to map more than 100 women’s groups – all involved in social activities, such as community soup kitchens, informal crèches and urban gardening projects.

“Those groups were a way of maintaining or recreating the social ties that are always at risk in urban areas,” she said.

But the COVID-19 outbreak threatened this physical connectivity.

Ear to the ground

With her experience in ICT4D, Lorini knew support activities could be developed and deployed through digital platforms. But these needed someone with an ear to the ground – someone like her.

“We needed to do our part to save lives,” she said. “We couldn’t just stay home.”

An activist since her teen years growing up in Italy, Lorini has always had a heart for vulnerable women. She also brings a diverse background in international relations, human rights, conflict management and journalism.

When she came to Cape Town 12 years ago, it was to open and manage a shelter for abused women and children.


“It was the first shelter built inside a township to be close to the people in need and to be a sign of what we were fighting for.”

“It was the first shelter built inside a township to be close to the people in need and to be a sign of what we were fighting for,” she said. When women’s empowerment organisation MOSAIC approached her NGO for space to establish a local base for their activities, a lasting collaboration began.

 safe spaces
Workshops provide safe spaces for discussion. Photo Maria Rosa Lorini.

The project expanded to a community centre and eventually a hub connecting several organisations active in Philippi: the shelter, mobile clinics for HIV and TB testing, social workers, the workshop space and after-school activities for vulnerable children.

PhD and white elephants

In 2012 the projects became self-sustainable. But instead of packing up and moving on, Lorini opted to do a PhD at UCT.

“My initial idea was to develop a critical dissertation about the side effects of technologies on social relations and power imbalance growth, and, above all, the increased number of white elephants: projects sponsored and deployed by international organisations and eventually abandoned, resulting in a high failure rate,” she said.

“Too often the projects were top-down, with extremely limited engagement of the affected population in their conceptualisation and implementation and showcasing a lack of understanding of infrastructural and societal conditions.”

In 2014 she started an action-research project within ICT4D focused on the potential of ICT to bring about good change through bottom-up, co-creative processes of frugal innovation. But when COVID-19 struck, some projects needed a new approach, as vulnerable women became more isolated.

“I started contacting people, mainly activists and NGOs, to enquire and talk about what we could do … and the #Data4Women initiative was the final idea.”

One-to-one connection

Through fundraising, the #Data4Women campaign now supports 10 groups of eight to 15 women in the targeted communities by providing them with data on a monthly basis. Each group has a leader and a social worker to provide support and counsel. And each woman needs around R40 of data each month to connect, using the special WhatsApp bundles available from network providers.

Instead of downloading a “taboo” support app that might reveal the women’s intentions, they connect with their support groups on a one-to-one basis to talk about anything – from gender-based violence to e-learning for their children.

“Ten groups of women have been active for almost four months, and a total of 120 women have been regularly ‘recharged’,” she said.

“Yes, there’s limited tech, but tech and apps are not the answer to every situation.”

The idea did not spread fast or easily. Women invited to be part of a group were worried about the scope of the activity.


“There are still many cultural barriers, and some women are worried that these platforms might increase the stigma around the victims.”

“There are still many cultural barriers, and some women are worried that these platforms might increase the stigma around the victims. Most abuse survivors do not speak up. The WhatsApp groups also offer a possibility to start talking about certain issues, in a soft way, in a peer environment. The experts will be on call when needed.”

She added: “Often their partners check their phones. For this reason, we tried to encourage the leaders to call the groups in simple ways that wouldn’t attract attention. And this is also why the idea of an app to call for help was discouraged: it would look suspicious, use data, only focus on [gender-based violence] and wouldn’t provide general daily possible support, like a WhatsApp informal group.”

The women Lorini “recharges” may use the data for anything they consider important.

“It can be for chatting with friends and families, emotional support, sharing e-learning educational material for their kids, staying informed about COVID-19 or, when they feel comfortable in the group, disclosing problems and taboos and asking for counselling or help.”

ICT saves lives

The #Data4Women initiative will underpin her new research paper, which will look at the larger, societal impacts of tech and connectivity.

“I would like to focus on the idea that we can save lives, and ICT can help us,” said Lorini.

 What more could the big data providers be doing to support women in these times?

“Give us some free data!”

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