Donated cellphones are helping to protect battered women in Saskatchewan, thanks to a program called "Phones for a Fresh Start".

So long as the phones are in working order, they can be a valuable lifeline in an emergency, people involved in the program explained to CBC News.

"You can call 911 from your SaskTel cellphone even if you don't have cell phone minutes," Crystal Geisbrecht, who works with women in crisis, explained.

More than 4,000 women seek help at women's centres in Saskatchewan every year.

Giesbrecht recalled one case where a woman, who had moved out of a Regina shelter and into an apartment, was attacked by her estranged husband.

"[The woman] was able to dial 911 and the police were able to to trace the call and find her," Giesbrecht said. "Police stopped the assault and she was safe."

The cellphone donation program is supported by the provincial Crown corporation SaskTel.

Since 2009, the company has collected 41,041 used cellphones at drop-off bins throughout the province.

Usable devices are provided to woman in any one of 19 shelters with the help of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS). 

Phones that don't work are sent to an Ontario recycling company that salvages plastics and precious metals from the devices.

A phone and its battery contain many precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper.

About 96 per cent of a cellphone has some value and proceeds from the recycling, about $1.20 per device, are used to furnish pre-paid phone cards to women.

Many phones tossed in trash

According to the phone industry, Canadians replace their cellphones every 18 to 24 months. However, only 12 percent of cellphones are recycled. While some old phones are resold, given away or sit — ignored — in a drawer, many are simply tossed in the trash.

"We are seeing a lot more people recycling, since we started the 'Phones for a Fresh Start' program," SaskTel's Michelle Englot said. "Most people don't realize these materials are reusable or recyclable."

Family support workers say the donated phones provide security and independence to abused women.

"Most often women come to us with nothing," Andrea Moss, who works at Sofia House in Regina, said. "They've left their homes with no furniture [and only the] clothes on their back."

In many cases the women have children with them.

A cellphone and phone card is a precious resource to women who have no money or credit.

Moss also recalled a situation where a donated cellphone helped a woman escape a dangerous situation.

"She was with her baby on the street and [her ex-partner] came up and grabbed her and shook her. She was able to get away from him and called 911 on her cellphone," Moss said.

The phones are also important for other needs the women have, including staying in touch with lawyers, child protection services, and searching for a job or new apartment as well as registering children in school.

In some cases, the women already have a phone, but having an additional phone number allows them to restrict contact with their ex-partners and reduce stalking or harassment.

"We've had one lady who used the cellphone just for contact with her ex-partner," Moss said. "She had to communicate with him regarding custody [but] she didn't want to give him her house phone number."