feature friday, interview, non-profit, social change, women's rights

Feature Friday: Zariya & Founder Sahar Khan

Hello friends! This Friday, I’d like to introduce you to Zariya, an inspiring new organization working to support survivors of violence against women – currently in India – through an innovative, tech savvy new model. Check out what inspired Zariya’s Founder, Sahar Khan, in her journey towards tackling gender-based violence and founding a new model in this space!

  1. Tell me about yourself; how did you develop a passion for addressing gender-based violence?

Interestingly, in high school in Oman, I worked on women’s education because access to education is a cause that was and remains very dear to me personally. However, during my undergrad years at Stanford, my focus shifted slightly as I learnt more about the pressing problem of violence against women (VAW). I was exposed to grassroots women’s rights work to tackle VAW in India in the summer of 2012. In addition, I am struck by the visceral nature of violence which reminds us that, despite how educated and empowered a woman becomes, she can still be subject to the most debilitating form of abuse. In international law and rule of law studies, we often talk about an “enabling environment” that is required to ensure economic progress. It sounds abstract and you can’t easily measure the benefits of an enabling environment. And, when it’s there, you barely notice it. You only really feel its absence. I believe that a world free from violence is a woman’s enabling environment. And, we can’t just sit around waiting for international and national governments to hand us an enabling framework on a platter – we need to work with them to build the right institutions. This is why I work to end violence against women.

  1. What does Zariya do to address gender-based violence, and what is Zariya’s theory of change?

Zariya is an online platform which connects survivors of VAW with legal and counseling experts. Within 2 days, a woman can access the Zariya website on her smartphone, computer or other handheld device, provide just her email and pincode and thereafter access the resources she needs in her journey of rehabilitation. We use “hyperlocal” matching whereby a woman’s pincode is used to match her with a high-quality expert in her vicinity. We do this for a woman’s convenience, regional/linguistic specificity and to minimize costs relating to transportation. The experts that we connect women with are paid professionals at reputable organizations that Zariya has vetted such as MyChoices and Shaheen in Hyderabad, Swayam in Kolkata, Sneha in Mumbai etc.

And, we have a “third-party” theory of change. Zariya acts as a third-party advocate for a woman that drives all parties involved in a woman’s case to reach closure. Our role is to be a compassionate yet neutral assessor of a woman’s needs and match her with the right resources. We intentionally oversee and coordinate the various moving pieces of a case because this can be a serious hassle for survivors who do not have the kind of network to pull all the right levers. We are process agents rather than direct providers of the legal advice or counselling service. But, we make sure that the experts are doing a good job. This will be consolidated further in the future when we develop a ranking system for service providers in the anti-VAW ecosystem. An average case at most of our service providers’ organizations does not exceed 130 days. If that happens, we request an explanation and plan to immediately shift gears as necessary to bring a case closer to a satisfactory outcome.

Zariya’s long-term vision is to build an integrated referral network and a robust case management system customized for specific nations’ jurisdictions. After perfecting the entry-point which we are currently beta-testing, Zariya aims to build a case management system that empowers a survivor by providing her an enabling environment to drive her case from start-to-finish. We aim to infuse a small amount of coordination and accountability into the anti-VAW ecosystem. Ultimately, we endeavor to build a robust technology that governments can deploy.

  1. How does your model work?

Picture2We have a three-step process: triage (understand a woman’s needs), service delivery (match her with experts who can address her needs) and closure (an outcome that places the survivor in a more just, safe and happy material and mental state).

Zariya is currently a non-profit organization. The product and service will always be delivered to survivors at no charge. As we grow and scale our operations, we hope to initially be supported by grants and donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.

  1. What are the biggest successes you’ve experienced so far with Zariya? What challenges are you facing?

This is just the beginning of our journey, but we are getting a lot of traffic and more cases than we and our NGO partners ever expected. Every single time a woman initiates a case with Zariya and shows that she won’t endure abuse silently, we pat ourselves on the back because taking the first step of seeking help is the hardest. Our users have already commended us for quick turn-around and genuine care and concern for their problems. You can also check out Zariya’s website for user testimonials.

We have many challenges ahead that we need to overcome to make Zariya available to women in the future. The two classic challenges that most socially forward startup organizations initially face are financing and volunteer retention. We have only recently addressed our short-term financial needs through raising small amounts from multiple sources. In the long-term, we need to re-structure financially and organizationally so that we can focus on the actual substance of our work.  In the short term, we’ve had the steepest learning curve. Our volunteers have consisted of engineering and psychology students at IIT and other colleges, journalists, and designers who come on board to assist in case management, coordination and user design research & development. We are slowly starting to understand how to identify the right people and the best methods to motivate the right people.

  1. What are the biggest gaps and challenges with respect to service delivery and the support that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault require to move forward?

At Zariya, we call these challenges “supply-side” challenges (as opposed to demand-side challenges which comprise problems relating to under-reporting). We have noticed that, while there is a proliferation of organizations in the space, the supply-chain is not highly integrated and all organizations do not provide the same quality of help at a given standard. A highly comprehensive  report by Dasra has suggested that there needs to be some sort of a coordination mechanism between various types of help (legal, economic, medical, financial) so that a woman can resolve all separate yet inter-connected problems in a systematic and holistic manner. The case process is usually messy and non-linear, and is not something that a single service provider can be expected to manage in addition to providing her service.

In the anti-VAW ecosystem, there isn’t really a third party that vets service providers and provides a coordination mechanism. This is the role that Zariya plays for a woman. The better we get at understanding their problems, the more adept we get at making the smartest connections for her and overseeing the constantly moving pieces of her puzzle. In the duration of a case, we sometimes end up connecting a woman with 4-5 services until she finds a service provider who shows compassion for her and provides useful & actionable guidance. The compassion part is key as we have noticed that that’s what makes a survivor stick with a service provider. We are also currently in the process of developing a “compassion quotient” indicator for the anti-VAW ecosystem.

On the demand-side, there is lack of knowledge about existing services. So many women come to us and say that they filed a report with the police and then there wasn’t much follow-up or recourse. We need women to understand that, besides filing a report with the police (which is recommended), there are so many other options. For instance, women may not know about alternative dispute resolution and other mediation measures that can be delivered to them in a cost-effective manner. We hope to educate them about these services.

  1. What is the role of government in providing holistic services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault? Is the government currently fulfilling its duties? If not, how can we change this status quo?

Globally, most governments and legal systems are over-burdened and resource-constrained. And, even when governments take steps in the right direction with ambitious plans and infusion of funds, plans take time to implement and funds take time to be disbursed. Sometimes, if these plans are not viable, they fall apart. In my view, private citizens can play a crucial role in pushing their governments to expedite anti-VAW policies and programs. This can take on the form of activism or advocacy. We can also very substantially challenge the status quo by collaboratively creating innovative and novel solutions to learn about survivor needs. Half of the work that we do at Zariya is understanding and triaging a survivor’s need; the other half is catering to her needs.

In doing so, non-profits and private organizations can build a repository of knowledge and case precedent that can be presented to governments as a proof-of-concept that works. Governments may be able to provide personnel or funding for such projects and the project organizations can retain their intellectual capital. Essentially, deals need to be brokered and structures set up between public and private entities to make projects such as Zariya national, scalable and financially self-sustaining. India has a Delhi Wi-fi Commission that considers projects for scale-up once they have been operational in a city for a considerable amount of time. So, while some may argue that governments have a duty to directly provide services to female survivors of violence, there’s no saying that we can’t assist our governments in fulfilling their duties. In turn, governments can financially support and provide the personnel, connections and the kind of national scale needed for projects to reach their full potential.

At the Nobel Prize Series event in India in January 2017, Zariya India is emphasizing precisely this message of collaboration between government and innovative organizations. In addition to sharing Zariya’s lessons, successes, and challenges with the honorable Nobel Laureates and other delegates, we endeavor to start the right conversations with government and industry leaders about how to co-support purposeful ideas in a sustainable fashion.

  1. In addition to working to remedy sexual assault and domestic violence after it occurs, how can we work to prevent and end violence against women in the first place?

Hotlines that are reliable and actually work are the short-term solution. And, social education is the long-term solution to change a culture in which, somehow, violence against women is still okay in the 21st century. However, in terms of viability, culture is a rather uncontrollable animal with a will of its own. So, we can’t conclusively or even inconclusively identify when there will be a sea change in culture that will liberate society from violence against women. As you know, a policy reform can be made overnight, but reform in culture can take generations. Still, it’s important to mention that social education efforts need to be benevolently fashioned in a way that they genuinely inspire change in behavior towards women instead of inflaming more aggression. Don’t vilify “perpetrators” but inspire them to be better people.

team
Zariya’s team in action

Furthermore, at Zariya, we believe that remedy is inextricably connected to prevention. The more women who stand up for themselves and demand remedy, the more people will learn about this problem and come to realize that VAW is unacceptable. We think that those demanding remedy are the best and most effective anti-VAW advocates. At Zariya, our interest is ensuring that these women can stand up on their feet again and speak for themselves. Through our research in multiple cities across India (New Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad), we have learnt that silence prolongs violence. Of course, breaking the silence and speaking out needs to be done carefully in a manner that doesn’t hurt a woman’s case. Violence is bound to continue when there is an individual and collective silence around the issue. Zariya aims to break the cycle of violence by ending the silence in a safe, secure and confidential manner.

  1. How can people come forward to support Zariya’s mission?

Spread the word! Share Zariya’s website and updates on your social media. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Please also sign up for our mailing list to remain up to date with features, testimonials, vacancies and other developments at Zariya.

Please talk to women you know who are facing violence, show them Zariya’s website, and encourage them to reach out.

Visit our website and send us any feedback on product, content and design. We are always open to hear your valuable thoughts and comments on how we can continue improving Zariya to best serve survivors’ needs.

About SaharPicture1

Sahar Khan is the Founder of Zariya, a 501c3 non-profit that tackles violence against women. An
American raised in Arabia (from the age of 6 months), Sahar is a Stanford alumni who previously worked in The Hague and studied development in Cambridge.

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