Western research helps develop personalized website for women in domestic violence

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A new website developed by a team led by a Western University researcher will help women in abusive relationships determine the threat they are under and offer personalized suggestions to help them.

Marilyn Ford-Gilboe, a nursing professor and the university’s women’s health research chair in rural health, was one of three leaders at three universities who developed the website, called iCAN Plan 4 Safety, and tested it in a study involving more than 450 women experiencing violence by their partner.

“It’s the first interactive, online health and safety resource of its kind for Canadian women, specifically,” Ford-Gilboe said.

The website asks women a series of questions to help them determine the risks in their relationships and provides suggestions based on their circumstances along with links and contact information for agencies that can help.

The website — expected to go live this summer — is intended to complement existing services such as shelters and agencies that provide counselling, Ford-Gilboe said.

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Only one in five Canadian women assaulted by their partners access services such as a domestic violence shelter, she said.

“Most of the other women are dealing with the violence on their own in some way.”

The website is designed with the safety of users in mind. When women log in, they will be instructed how to use the site so it doesn’t show up in the browser history of their computer or other device. The website also includes a quick escape function that will take the user to Google’s home page.

The Western team worked with researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of New Brunswick to develop the iCAN Plan 4 Safety website and test it.

Women already have access online to plenty of information about domestic violence, but some websites are developed in a way “that isn’t necessarily based on evidence of what is helpful or harmful to women,” Ford-Gilboe said.

“They are not really being tested or evaluated.”

The 462 women who took part in the study were divided into two groups. One group used a personalized version of the website, while the second used a version that was shorter and less personal.

The women completed online surveys over the course of a year and about 40 women were interviewed at the end of the study.

“What we found out is the women who used both versions of that tool actually saw improvement, but certain groups improved more with that personalized version,” Ford-Gilboe said.

The groups included women with children under the age of 18, those experiencing severe abuse, those not living with their abusive partner when they started the study and those living in medium and large urban settings.

“The groups are actually pretty important because they are groups of women who have great risk of harm or poor outcomes,” Ford-Gilboe said.

Results of the study were published this week in the journal BMC Public Health.