Impact Journalism Day 2016

Got a Problem? Ask Sister Maya

Bangladeshi women searching for answers to taboo subjects in their conservative society are getting help courtesy of a groundbreaking digital platform.

The Maya app provides a safe space for people to talk about issues that are considered 'taboo.'
IJD

The Maya app is probably one of the biggest initiatives helping to create a virtual safe space for people from all walks of life in Bangladesh.

The digital platform offers a unique and crucial opportunity for users to seek information and foster discussions on a range of topics that society has for too long deemed taboo.

The app builds on the popularity of the open “Question and Answer” platform of the website Maya Apa Ki Bolen – Ask Sister Maya (maya.com.bd). The app has proved a blessing for many, especially women who often had questions and problems that no one was willing to discuss in this conservative society.

The idea behind the app is simple: users sign in, create an anonymous profile and post a question. The question is then answered within 48 hours. Legal, medical and numerous other professional experts address the questions relating to their field and find solutions or offer sound advice to the faceless individuals behind the usernames.

Constructive discussions

The community takes part, too. This way, constructive discussions occur on matters that people generally shy away from – not only in their living rooms but also their bedrooms.

“Maya has been working to empower women through technology and access to information on women’s health, and anything of relevance to a woman’s life, on a daily basis for the last three years,” explains Sheepa Hafiza, director of Gender Justice and Diversity at the BRAC Migration Programme.

“We hope the information generated through this app will promote advocacy for the formulation of new policies or the revision of existing policies in favor of women’s and girls’ rights,” says Hafiza.

“The Maya app is a unique output of BRAC and [website] Maya’s partnership. Together, we intend to reach out to more women and girls in the quickest possible time and with an effective mode of interaction for sharing, learning and empowering,” she adds.

For Shamima Parvin (not her real name), the Maya app provided a much-needed platform for her to talk about domestic violence and seek legal advice on how to get a divorce and retain custody of her child.

“No one in my family was willing to help me – they didn’t want me to leave my abusive husband. They kept telling me, ‘What will people say about a divorced daughter? Learn to adjust,’” recalls Shamima.

“The walls were closing in on me,” she continues. “What was I to do? My husband threatened that if I left, I would never see my child. Finally, I heard about this app and posed my question, not really expecting much. But then I was surprised at the support I received. In addition to providing me with a step-by-step answer, Maya Apa also connected me to a legal aid organization, which helped me through the process.”

Given that Maya Apa receives hundreds of anonymous messages every day, it’s not a simple task to ensure that each user receives the best possible service, free of judgment. In order to do so, each query is first screened and then passed onto a relevant expert.

In addition, a team of individuals is constantly screening every question, response and discussion taking place. This is done to ensure that the app leads to a portal that fits the description of a “safe space.”

No hate speech

Special attention is paid so that no hateful speech is generated during discussions and a sense of community is generated.

Maya Apa is the first-ever help service app for women in Bangladesh that has also been designed, developed and implemented by female engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs.

Shubramy Moutushy was the project’s lead software engineer, aided by fellow software engineer Syeda Prima Rasnim and project manager Achia Khaleda Mila.

The app has enabled important data to be collected, which can be used to formulate better policies and strengthen women’s moves for equality. It has also highlighted the harm caused by the creation of taboos, which frequently result in women or men refusing to seek the help they may urgently need.

The app can also be used as an important tool for patient management, with the entire history of the user stored; this may be critical to a doctor looking to provide effective treatment.

Maya Apa was conceived as a harbinger of social change. And if the statistics and discussions are anything to go by, it seems that a lot of real change has indeed taken place over the years. It demonstrates how to initiate so-called controversial dialogues without fear of societal reprisal, and enables us to challenge our own backdated beliefs.

This article first appeared in Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star.