Hera Hussain

Ashoka Fellow
Hera Hussain
United Kingdom
Fellow since 2022
This description of Hera Hussain's work was prepared when Hera Hussain was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Recognising that the web is a powerful tool for vulnerable women who may have nowhere else to turn, Hera Hussain founded Chayn, a universe of online spaces for victims of gender-based violence that honours their agency and context by connecting them with inclusive, multi-lingual curated support and tools to heal.

The New Idea

Hera champions a new approach to addressing gender-based violence (GBV). One that meets survivors where they are, removing obstacles to allow easy access to resources and support in the language they are most comfortable in. This approach combines technology with survivor-led resource creation and trauma-informed design. Simply worded, positively framed, and culturally diverse content for users across six continents is created by an international network of survivor-volunteers and staff whose own lived experience with GBV ensures that resources fully honor the complexity and nuance of victims’ experiences.

Hera’s model – called Chayn, the Urdu word for ‘solace’ – cultivates a feminist and trauma-informed online space where GBV is explored and hope for something better is embraced. It informs, empowers, and connects women and non-binary people in need of support, so they can live healthier, happier and more independent lives. Importantly, Chayn makes no assumptions of what the right solution for survivors is. Rather, its mission is for all survivors to achieve ‘chayn’, inner peace and healing from within, in whatever form that is possible within their individual context. Most of the online resources deal with domestic abuse, sexual violence, child abuse or neglect, harassment, and tech-facilitated abuse.

Survivor-volunteers, who make up more than 70% of the Chayn team, build and curate resources to ensure that information is accessible to diverse audiences and communicated in language that is respectful of non-binary and queer identities. Hera’s approach to managing the staff and volunteer community at Chayn is innovative for the non-profit sector, borrowing management methods used in the tech space (such as organising projects and work in sprints, and applying agile and a-syncronous practices) to ensure an effective workflow across individuals spread all across the globe. This approach to management intentionally serves as a sustainability method for the organization, empowering volunteer leadership while also preventing dependability and burn out.

Chayn’s work ensures that relevant knowledge is compiled and constructed through non-patriarchal and de-colonial lenses by those who know first-hand the information that can prove most helpful when suffering or recovering from abuse. Chayn’s platform Bloom hosts extensive courses on surviving trauma and developing a better understanding of trauma and how to recover from it, as well as providing a 1 to 1 chat with Chayn’s team. The courses are framed positively and can be explored at the survivors own pace to avoid re-traumatizing survivors. Your Story Matters is a digital tool to help sexual assault survivors build connections between their own GBV experience and that of others to build a sense of solidarity and hope, while creating new narratives free from patriarchal lenses. All Chayn’s platforms link to a global directory of organisations that can offer in-person support services or crisis support if the survivor decides that is what they need.

Hera’s work is influential in both the GBV sector as well as the tech sector. In the GBV sector, Chayn has quickly become the model for best practice in terms of using design and language that makes the resources and support Chayn offers feel survivor-centric. Soft, non-diagnostic, comforting language to help survivors come to terms with their experiences, together with visually welcoming web design and content written in over 14 languages means that users can access and benefit from Chayn’s resources wherever they are in their healing journey. This user centered design approach is being increasingly adopted across the GBV and wider charity sector, with Chayn often being cited as the inspiration behind the approach within the sector.

In the tech sector, Hera has become a champion and a respected expert in helping organisations understand how their architecture and design allows for harassment online and offline, and equipping them with the tools and knowledge to become part of the solution. Through Chayn’s partnership with dating app Bumble, providing support to their users who have faced harassment or assault, Chayn has quickly become a leader in the tech and online dating space for helping companies think through trauma-informed design to prevent abuse and harassment online.

As a global organisation, Chayn has reached more than 500,000 unique users. The Good Friend Guide, one of the site’s most popular resources, has been viewed more than 18,000 times in the last two years alone, and in 2020, Chayn’s how-to guides were altogether viewed more than 43,000 times by 14,416 unique users.

The Problem

Gender based violence is widely considered a global pandemic, with an estimated 736 million women globally - almost one in three - having been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older). Studies show that most violence against women is perpetrated by current or former husbands or intimate partners. The GBVsector is failing to address this issue. Escaping can be very difficult and dangerous. Globally 81,000 women and girls were killed in 2020, around 47,000 of them (58 per cent) died at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member, which is equivalent to a woman or girl being killed in their home every 11 minutes.

Patriarchal web design and tech-enabled misogyny add to these challenges. The Internet is often an unsafe space for women, especially for those who have already experienced abuse. According to the United Nation's, 73% of women have already been exposed to, or experienced, some form of online violence. Many women face violence online through cyber-harassment, revenge porn and threats of rape, sexual assault or murder. Women of colour, members of minority religions and people who identify as LGBTQ are often attacked more frequently. With the rise of dating apps, this issue is more pressing than ever. In a 2019 survey by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations, 1,200 women said they had used an online dating platform in the past 15 years, and more than a third of them said they were sexually assaulted by someone they had met through an app. Of these women, more than half said they were raped.

The gender-based violence sector is struggling to tackle this issue effectively. In part, this is because resources for victims are typically created by clinical professionals who can assume victims have the ability to escape their abusers or at least find time to make a private call or visit a support centre or will need to make a decision right away. However, those living in abusive households are often unable to seek support before they are ready to escape, which can leave them feeling even more helpless and disempowered if they do. Often it takes them months, if not years, to be able to do so. Advice has typically been given by professionals with no lived experience, and who have a limited understanding of the many barriers facing women from different communities. Sometimes doing more harm than good, support tools sometimes have the tendency to push women to leave their homes before they are ready, which can have dangerous consequences such as isolation from community, risk to life, and destitution which can lead them to go back to abusive circumstances. Additionally, the language used across many GBV resources can be not only inaccessible but exclusionary. It is often medicalising, prescriptive and written with a patriarchal bias, inadvertently placing blame on women for their situations. Furthermore, resources tend to be heteronormative and only available in English, lacking nuance and appreciation for intersectionality. This creates a further obstacle and feeling of alienation in particular for victims from marginalised communities. Hera witnessed this herself first-hand a decade ago, when she was helping two friends escape their abusive marriages. She found that online resources were framed by patriarchal bias and written mostly by those in the Global North. The advice provided was one size-fits-all, with language that disregarded intersectionality and non-binary and queer identities. It also treated victims as one single population. Hera knew then that a whole spectrum of survivor experiences based on geography, cultural context, identity, and access to support was missing.

The Strategy

Hera has designed three main strategies to ensure that victims underserved by existing GBV organisations can access support and feel solidarity and hope. The first is to empower survivors with the information and understanding they need to thrive. The second is to enable survivor volunteers to take center stage in the organisation and create and curate resources and courses that are inclusive, user-centered, and trauma-informed, which in turn builds agency and belonging across the survivor community. The third is to open source all content and technology built by Chayn in order to strengthen the work being done by others in the GBV sector globally as well as advocate and encourage trauma-informed approaches to product design and tech development that prevent harm.

For Hera’s strategy, impact on users and success is measured across 4 key pillars: 1) informing survivors so they can recognise and understand their trauma, 2) enabling survivors to take ownership of their healing; 3) connecting them to resources, organisations and other survivors so they can plan for an empowered future; and 4) supporting users and survivors to challenge patriarchal systems by paying Chayn’s support forward and becoming an agent for change.

To address the first strategy of informing and empowering survivors,, inclusively worded and positively framed toolkits and how-to guides offer guidance to users in fourteen languages that are accessible and actionable, including How to Build Your Own Domestic Violence Case Without A Lawyer, Do It Yourself Online Safety, and Getting Better & Moving On. Migrants living across Europe and the Americas and who have limited access to resources in languages other than English have proven to be a key user of Chayn’s resources and services. In response, Chayn resources are now written in Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian Hindi and Urdu – all in addition to those written in English.

Secondly, survivor-volunteers also lead in the building of micro-course platforms that support users to move beyond consuming helpful information alone. Bloom, Chayn’s flagship programme -asynchronous online courses for which users sign up anonymously - is packed with tailored information, guidance, everyday tools, and comforting words to learn how to set boundaries in relationships, practice self-compassion, and look to the future with optimism. 1,300 users have enrolled in Bloom courses since the platform was launched late last year. Bloom received glowing reviews from participants with 97% of them indicating they would recommend the service to someone else. 91% of participants said they agree or strongly agree that: ‘they feel more able to speak up about their own experiences’, the ‘course has improved their understanding of the impact of trauma on their life’ and that they ‘feel hopeful they can move past their traumatic experiences since taking the course’.

Building on this impact, in 2021 Chayn piloted a partnership with Bumble where Chayn provides tailored, on-demand access to Bloom, its remote trauma support programme for users of the dating app who have reported harassment. In addition to the partnership being extended and expanded this year, this partnership has also provided Hera with a model to take to corporates, the public sector and large non-profits that can become revenue-generating. Building this model not only enables Chayn to diversify its funding sources and continue to provide resources for free for survivors, it also opens up the gateway for Hera to influence and advocate for trauma-informed design among these organisations. To this end, Hera also serves on the Feminist Open Government working group for the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Finally, because all Chayn resources are open-source and easily downloadable, other charities and domestic abuse support services may adopt, adapt, and disseminate them to better serve the needs of GBV victims and their allies. Anecdotal evidence highlights how Chayn’s strategic use of technology is helping frontline organizations that have relied largely on in-person and/or telephone line support. At the same time, Chayn’s work is reducing pressure on traditional support services in many of the countries where users reside. UK charities in particular have augmented conventional services with online outreach as a result of the example Chayn has set since 2013.

Chayn is catalysing the adoption of a hybrid employee-volunteer model. The distribution of power remains volunteer-focused where the staff are employed to support the volunteers’ work and do things that require more time. Hera has adapted sprints from tech sector best practice to enable survivor-volunteers to rotate in and out of leadership positions every three to four months to allow volunteers to step back when life is busy. Chayn’s management structure allows relentless impetus for projects and a sustainable pool of happy and upskilled volunteers. Most importantly, volunteers at Chayn have significant decision-making power. Hera has built an enviable model where some people are paid, others are not but this causes no difference in power dynamics. A volunteer may manage a paid member of staff for a task and vice versa. This trust allows them to plan for the future. Volunteers also participate in Board meetings and help shape long-term strategy. The ambition for Hera is for Chayn’s hybrid employee-volunteer model that centers around co-production to be used as a blueprint for other organisations in the sector.

As a global organisation with all its products and services accessible online, Chayn is able to reach and support women and non-binary people facing GBV even in countries where civil society support is minimal or non-existent. Over the past 9 years, Chayn has relied primarily on organic web search, word of mouth and press to reach more than 500 000 survivors across the world with highest reach in UK, US, India, Pakistan, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Italy, Brazil, Belgium, South Africa, Lebanon, UAE, and Mexico.

To develop more strategic partnerships that will further scale its impact, Chayn has recently expanded its core team to include 9 members of paid staff, 3 part-time staff members and 8 short-term contractors. . And to support the work of others in the tech for good space, Hera and her colleagues reflect on their learnings on the Chayn blog and in occasional articles for other platforms, such as a recent article for Catalyst on how to create digital services with limited funding.

The Person

Born in Glasgow, Hera grew up in a happy family in Lahore, Pakistan. Her parents and grandparents encouraged her from a young age to share her opinions, engage in debate, and pursue leadership roles at school. She credits family matriarchs – her grandma started a school; many of her nine great aunts were doctors; her mum was the first woman in her town to drive – as a source of growing self-confidence and ambition. Aged only eight, she started to challenge teachers on the arbitrary standards they applied to female students’ appearance and clothing, given that the message they sent reinforced gender inequality and the objectification of girls for boys’ benefit. Hera also spoke up when older male relatives discussed politics – even though her outspokenness would earn her painful pinches from cousins. She persisted with the encouragement of her mum, dad, and grandparents, and soon channelled her passions by helping to lead the school newspaper. She would be voted ‘Most likely to be the next Benazir Bhutto’ at graduation.

Hera cultivated an interest in technology when she was young. Her mother started to enroll her in tech courses during summer holidays when she was just nine. Hera did coursework in typing and computer hardware and was usually the only female in the room. She quickly became known to peers and their families as a resident tech expert and became her dad’s ‘tech secretary’. She chose not to study tech when she returned to the UK for university, however. Hera read psychology and economics at the University of Glasgow. She started to engage in social entrepreneurship when she began to volunteer with MakeSense, an international tech organization that diffuses disruptive technologies to local communities of citizens and social entrepreneurs (and founded by Ashoka Fellow Christian Venizette). She drew many of her principles of running Chayn from the organisational approach of MakesSense and the many social entrepreneurs she provided mentoring for.

Shortly after she graduated, Hera found herself in the unfortunate position of needing to help two friends escape abusive marriages. One lived in Pakistan and was unable to leave her house unaccompanied. Her in-laws were a powerful family with influence over the local police. Male lawyers wrote much of what she found online, and resources often discussed how women misuse divorce law. Another friend had migrated to the UK but was unsure of her visa status if she separated from her husband, and out of fear that she might lose her child if pursued by immigration authorities, chose not to alert the police. Her fear of speaking to GBV helpline staff meant Hera would try to do the talking for her, only to be told that Hera’s friend couldn’t access help until she herself made the call. Hera helped both women search hundreds of websites to find answers about applying for social housing, securing a bank loan to fund rental accommodation, and understanding potential child custody arrangements. Any helpful resources she did find were written in dense academic language and mostly in English. They also betrayed a patriarchal bias and insensitivity to intersectionality. Hera’s frustration led her to design a solution: Chayn. She launched the organization in 2013, deliberately building this up as a volunteer-led organisation that could survive with little or no money to ensure its sustainability alongside holding a full-time role in the tech sector. Hera only became a full-time employee at Chayn once she saw the finances were robust and the impact she could have when devoting full-time professional energy into Chayn’s work.

Despite being a young social entrepreneur, she has already been recognized as Forbes 30 Under 30 and as an Innovator Under 35 by MIT Technology Review. She has also been named a ‘Point of Light’ by the UK Prime Minister and is a recipient of Her Majesty the Queen’s British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to charity.