Sunday, February 15, 2015


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 15, 2015

Will technological interventions make any difference to women’s lives? Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Fewer than a dozen hands went up when I asked a room of over 500 Mumbai college girls how many did not have a mobile phone. Given the growing belief that technology, as represented by the many functions of a mobile phone, whether it would 
aid the cause of women’s safety?
For instance, within a month of the Delhi gang rape in December 2012, a “women’s safety” app named “Nirbhaya” was launched. Since then dozens of such apps have been launched around the country. The latest is “Himmat” by the Delhi police, billed as the first integrated women’s safety app in India.

Given the increasing rate of rape and sexual assault on women, including minors, will these technological interventions make any difference to women’s lives? Delhi and Mumbai have also been promised thousands of closed-circuit cameras in public places to enhance women’s safety.

Will Indian women be safer with the government watching over them through closed-circuit cameras and through safety apps on mobile phones? I think not. For no app, no matter how smart or effective, can substitute for the many steps that need to be taken to make women feel secure. Principally, this involves changing a culture where attacking and sexually abusing women is acceptable.

Within the range of apps now available — with names like SmartShehar, VithU, BSafe, Raksha — the majority merely facilitate a quick call for help to the police and/or to relatives/friends in the event of an attack. A woman fearing an attack or when actually attacked (although how a woman surrounded by several men can grab her phone and use the app is anyone’s guess) is expected to be saved by the app. Designers of these apps are selling the belief that these apps will enhance women’s safety.

That, in fact, is the problem with the apps. For they create the illusion of safety and security without an understanding of the wider context of the persisting lack of safety for women. The conversation around them also fails to accept the reality of class. Apps are available to women with smartphones; these are owned only by 13 per cent of our total population (although there are an estimated 900 million mobile phone connections). And they exclude women without phones or with ordinary phones.

Secondly, these apps can work only if the official state machinery is responsive. Even the single numbers (103, 100) for distress calls do not produce a quick response, or indeed any response. Police apathy, whether you approach a police station or call a number, is virtually a given. Until this changes, the efficacy of any app is greatly limited.

Far more effective is to use technology not just to “protect” women, or give them an easy way to seek help, but to involve them in the process of understanding the issues of safety and danger, and become active participants. An app called SafetiPin, for instance, attempts to do that through its mapping tool. Women can pinpoint areas that they consider unsafe, put down reasons (for instance, dark corners or poor lighting) as well as seek help. An interactive app of this kind allows women to check their surroundings and also encourages them to add to the database so that others are helped. But, ultimately, even this information can make a difference only if the law enforcing machinery and city authorities act on it.

The good news is that women are using mobile technology to help themselves. There are several recent examples. The woman raped in an Uber cab in Delhi photographed the license plate of the cab on her phone, thereby assisting the police to track down the rapist. A young woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar shamed the middle-aged businessman in the seat behind her who tried to grope her by filming him, putting the clips out on YouTube and filing a complaint with the police. Well-known anti-trafficking activist Sunitha Krishnan has circulated an edited version of a shocking video of a gang rape by five men that has been on Whatsapp for some time. She has launched a Twitter campaign #ShameTheRapistCampaign urging people to find and identify the five men seen laughing away as they torture and rape a woman.

New technologies, like smartphones, are empowering and give women considerable autonomy. But in themselves, even if they are loaded with the most efficient apps, they cannot alter the reality of the dangers that women face in the public and private space. The onus should not be put on women to use such technology to keep themselves safe. Technology helps if the state does its job of dealing with crime, and society refuses to be complacent and accept sexual assault as just another crime.


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