5 Myths about Safety Apps and Why They Will Not Keep Women Safe

5 Myths about Safety Apps and Why They Will Not Keep Women Safe

This post is part of Badal Ja!’s Small Steps for Safety campaign. On Thursday, June 12th, at 10:00pm, we and other organizations working toward a safer, more spectacular Mumbai will take a nighttime tromp to re-assert the right of all Mumbaikars to occupy the city’s spaces at any time. Join us.

travel safe when alone - safety apps for women

The youth of India are ignited. Armed with knowledge and skills from the nation’s top engineering colleges and enraged by the frequency of rape and sexual assault in our country, they are ready to take on the fight for women’s safety. Similarly, corporations are finding ways to make big bucks off the new public consciousness around the violence that women undergo in our cities every day.

It seems like every day, a new mobile safety app is released, always a purportedly sexy new way of using our smartphones to make the world a better place for women.

Though I applaud these efforts – many, or even the majority, of which come from empathetic young men – we must not be complacent, just happy that “someone is doing something” or jump to catchy technology solutions. Sexual harassment and assault is all-pervasive in our country: In order to eliminate it from our streets, we need to truly understand street safety and rigorously assess if our solutions are solving the problem or not.

The truth is, most safety applications have little potential to make any sort of significant impact on us.

Let’s look at why.

Myth #1: Safety apps will prevent rape.

Reality: Safety apps will only help them find our bodies.

To begin with, let’s set aside the fact that in India, close relatives or acquaintances of the victims (including husbands) account for 98% of rapes [Oxfam]. This means that safety apps are targeting 2% of the rapes that are occurring on a weekly and monthly basis.

The majority of these apps accomplish two things:

  1. Send calls or messages to a group of contacts (usually family and friends, sometimes police)
  2. Track a woman’s location by GPS.

One app, FightBack, goes a bit further and even updates a woman’s Facebook status (e.g. “OMG plz help, about to b rapeddd”). Except in the rare occasion of an unusually proximate and responsive police station, these apps will accomplish one thing – helping police investigate and perhaps convict perpetrators post-facto with the data gathered on the phone.

This approach is in no way practical for the app user – it takes less than 5 minutes to be sexually assaulted. How in hell would sending a mass text message to your parents help? And do you need a safety application to send a text message to your loved ones? Absolutely not. That is, unless someone is trying to pull down your pants and you use your lightning-speed, cutting-edge safety app (or pink, diamond studded phone) to send out the fastest alert in human history. In which case, you are still screwed.

Let’s even go back to the Delhi gangrape itself, seeing that one of the most advertised safety applications leverages the brand “Nirbhaya.” Could Jyoti Singh Pandey have activated her handy-dandy safety app after boarding that bus and not have been gangraped and killed? Very, very unlikely – the phone would have been thrown out the window in the first five minutes.

Why do they exist then? Whatever their shortcomings in actually keeping women safe, these applications satisfy three burning, psychological needs on the part of a woman’s family:

  1. The need for taking some action – “I’m doing ‘something’ about it.”
  2. Parents’, boyfriends’, and husbands’ need to control and track a woman’s movements and “save” her if she is in danger – and pacifying them in letting women navigate cities alone.
  3. The need to place onus of safety on the woman.

None of these motivations will keep women safe. The real issue driving the violence still lies beneath the surface, suppressed and sidelined: why are men of all ages, classes, professions, and personalities feeling so entitled to women’s bodies and feeling the need to control and destruct them?

Until we address that question we will continue to indict women for choosing to wear a particular piece of clothing, going out at night, socializing with a drink, or even for not having a safety app on her smartphone.

Myth #2: If apps can prevent kidnap-and-rape situations, they are solving street safety.

Reality: Street sexual violation happens everywhere, all the time, without going as far as rape.

Every woman is well aware of the reality. Whether you are riding in public transportation, sitting on a park bench, or even walking in a high-income neighborhood, violation frequently occurs without rape – the odd man following you for half a kilometer, the leering stares meant to strip you, and of course, the fingers, elbows, and “other” body parts probing you in crowded trains and buses.

In contrast to the majority of safety apps, there are a few addressing street violation in a thoughtful way: Safe City and Harassmap have built interfaces to map sexual harassment across cities, allowing for better police monitoring and ability to break up dangerous groups of harassers, and also showcase the magnitude of the problem and the diverse ways in which women experience harassment. Neither of these track the GPS location of women, nor send out alerts.

Myth #3: Safety apps can help most women.

Reality: Only 10% of Indians have smartphones – the other 90% use feature phones – and these are the women who are the most unsafe.

It takes one conversation with a working class woman to understand that she does not feel – and is not–- as safe as a middle class woman transiting around a city like Mumbai.

A young woman we interviewed during our “Small Steps for Safety” campaign explained that she does not feel safe anywhere, at any time. She described an incident when a drunk man approached her when she was walking home: In panic, she slapped him with her shoe, and bystanders continued to watch. Sometimes when she’s alone, she says, she is fearful to pass groups of loitering men because she just does not know what will happen.

Similarly, rapes and gangrapes taking place in slums often go unreported. In conversations with low-income girls, I learned of many instances of street violence, including gang rape, that have gone unreported, unheard of, unconvicted.

With rape being a crime of power, women with fewer resources, less social clout, lower caste standing, and even darker skin, often feel less safe, every day, all the time. These women are the least likely to use and benefit from safety apps.

Myth #4: Protecting women against rickshaw/taxi drivers will solve the problem.

Reality: Anyone can commit assault – and it’s largely about power differentials.

Auto-drivers, taxi drivers – almost every safety app “fends against” these two demographics. Some applications go even further and register and profile working men – the chaiwallah in the office, the security guard. There is a fixation on working class men. Why?

Firstly, it is convenient to imagine the perpetrator as a working class man lurking in the shadows. Conversely, it’s very difficult to confront the reality that most perpetrators across class lines are fathers, uncles, boyfriends, friends, and husbands. Also, we forget that rape is not a crime of passion, but rather a crime of power. In an office, a boss might be much more likely to impose sexual demands on a woman or even commit assault (think Tarun Tejpal, or the management consultant in Jaipur) rather than a humble chai-wallah. Think about it: Who would be more likely to get away with it, and on whom would the survivor be less likely to file an FIR?

Just as working class women face unique barriers and dangers due to their vulnerability, working class men are also vulnerable, often bearing the brunt of our fears.

Myth #5: Technology can solve all our problems.

Reality: Technology is only the means to an end.

Yes, we hold up our IITs like the holy grail of talent and worthiness in our society. We encourage our children to get into engineering or IT because that will allow them to make the money necessary to have a stable living, and technology is a symbol of the future, and the possibilities in store for us.

However, excitement over new technology can never be a solution in itself – innovators must look at the entire user experience and rigorously measure their impact to see if they are actually solving the problem.

Let’s look at a case study of technology gone horribly wrong – the electric-shock bra that “delivers a 3800kv electric shock to any would-be rapist, enough to cause severe burns.” An extended version of our famous safety apps, the bra also has a GPS and alarm system. The brainchild of a few women engineers from SRM University in Chennai—and the recipient of the prestigious Gandhian Young Technological Innovation Award at IIM-Ahmedabad—this technology epitomizes how far we have yet to go.

If we are aiming for a world in which women feel fearless, free, safe, and in control of their sexuality, this technology does the exact opposite. Every morning that a woman puts on her armor she remembers that she should be fearful of the world and cover up her sexuality to the point where she is quite literally an object—a violent object at that.

This “innovation” sends shivers down my spine because if I were wearing an electric-shock bra, I know for certain that I would subconsciously be ingraining in myself a perpetual fear, an intense need to shield my sexuality from the world, and be confronting the world every day with a dangerous weapon—my breasts—which, by the way, would be traceable on a GPS map. Not only that, it reinforces a dangerous signal to young men: “I do not trust you or your humanity, I believe you can not control yourself and must be treated like a dog at an electric fence.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Far more powerful would be fearless, peaceful approaches to street safety that every individual can partake in, like engaging in the subversive act of loitering or starting dialogues with young men.

So what should we be doing?

We know now that sexy apps and technologies are not going to save the world. But empathetic listening and questioning will. Changing mindsets will. Understanding why people behave the way they do and seeking to fix the problem at its root is the only way to solve an issue of this magnitude.

People rail against these solutions because they believe it takes “too long” for mindsets to change. I ask you: Would you rather focus on your technology, letting sexual harassment and assault be an issue for the next 20, 50, 100 years? Or would you rather commit yourself to fixing the deeper problem, knowing that you’re creating a real change which will manifest itself within your lifetime?

It’s feasible if we approach it correctly. We need to break the taboo on sexuality, educating boys and girls on consent and mutual respect. We must approach misguided boys with dialogue, not punishment – which will lead to longer-term behavior change. Systemically, we must explore what conditions lead to safer cities, like the presence of other women on the streets, adequate lighting, and plenty of public transportation options.

Finally, citizen involvement is key. If you see something, do something. It takes everyone to create a culture of safety and liberation.

A simple first step?

Join Badal Ja! on our Small Steps for Safety walk on Thursday, June 12th.

If we can envision it, we can create it. With our collective energy, we can create city-wide cultures of safety. But it involves us working together and thinking systemically – not building more technologies in isolated labs that risk perpetuating the very culture we’re working to change.

Further Reading