Cookbooks and sanitary pads have something in common

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Cookbooks and sanitary pads are not the first things that come to mind when thinking about ways to support women and girls who have survived violence. But for a group of female innovators in Ecuador, these low-tech, yet innovative, “secret women’s codes” could combat the COVID-19 pandemic’s hidden crisis – increasing rates of violence against women and girls.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Ecuador alone has reported more than 70,000 calls to 911 related to gender-based violence.

Before the pandemic, less than one in four women in Latin America had experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence inflicted by their partner. As COVID-19 lockdowns were enforced, cases have increased. Ecuador alone reported more than 70,000 calls to 911 related to gender-based violence since the beginning of the crisis.

At UNICEF, we knew we needed to be innovative in our response, as many women, especially the most marginalized, do not have access to digital communications channels. Within a matter of days, we were approached by IMPAQTO, an innovation lab focused on entrepreneurship and social issues, to partner in developing a virtual hackathon for women.

Having seen the impact of human-centred design approaches, like our UPSHIFT model, I knew the hackathon could have promising results. However, I wanted to ensure we included younger voices, and brought in UNICEF’s expertise around gender-based violence in emergencies.

In April 2020, more than 200 women and girls, most aged 18-30 years, from 20 different Latin American countries gathered online for the first “Hackea la crisis: mujeres y niñasor “Hacking the crisis: women and girls”. Forty-six teams and 78 mentors and experts from a variety of organizations came together to develop solutions for combating domestic violence, increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services, and reaching women and girls with no access to phones or the internet.

A zoom screen with multiple people on a call
© UNICEF/ECU/2020/EscobarHackea la crisis Mujeres y Niñas, 2020. Zoom meeting with the participants of the Hackathon.

Despite never meeting in-person, we developed 27 solutions in 22 hours. Among these, three were announced as winners: a campaign using sanitary pads to spread secret messages about where to find support for gender-based violence; a programme using Whatsapp focused on sexual and reproductive health information; and a cookbook of “neighbor’s recipes” shared among women for secretively reporting violence.

What struck me the most about the winning solutions is two of the three do not use technology. Often, we assume that innovation means technology, however our hackathon proved that innovative ideas that truly meet and understand the needs of the community can be low-tech and require no connectivity.

The winning solutions are now being piloted in local communities in Ecuador in partnership with government institutions, UN Agencies, International Cooperation Organizations and women and girls of the hackathon. The hope is to scale-up the solutions across the region.

“No Más Sangre”, the solution using sanitary pads, is partnering with a shelter for women and girls, as well as UNICEF, UNFPA and the Secretariat of Human Rights to develop a prototype and pilot the messaging. The team that developed “La receta de la vecina” or “The neighbor’s recipe” finished designing the cookbook for discreetly reporting abuse, with support from UNICEF, GIZ and the Human Rights Secretariat. The team will pilot the cookbook with local women’s organizations, governments and civil society organizations to create community-based protection networks to prevent violence against women and girls in local communities.

It was amazing to see that even though the participants in the hackathon did not know each other and came from different backgrounds, we were able to develop innovative and creative solutions. Our power as humans truly lies in our ability to strengthen our social fabric – even virtually – to make changes for women and girls everywhere.


This story is part of a series of field diaries from UNICEF staff focused on reimagining and delivering a gender equitable world, including living out the organization’s Five Actions for Gender Equality in the COVID-19 Response.

Alexandra Escobar García is a social policy officer and gender focal point in UNICEF Ecuador.

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