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Can Panic Buttons On Mobile Phones Really Keep India's Women Safe?

Sexual violence is a constant challenge for India's 600 million women. Some think installing panic buttons on all mobile phones can help.
May 20, 2016, 10:40pm
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For women and girls living in India, the threat or reality of sexual violence is ever present in daily life. According to an ActionAid report released on Friday, almost four out of five have experienced some form of sexual harassment or violence in public. And even if they're lucky enough not to directly encounter sexual violence, the effects of living in a society where women are conditioned to fear sexual assault are hugely damaging. You lose autonomy over your own life: unable to venture out after dark alone, made to sit in women-only areas on public transport, or subject to university curfews your fellow male students don't face.

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Some think technology can help keep women safe. In June 2015, Delhi police launched Himmat, a mobile panic button app. In April, India's Ministry of Women and Child Development announced plans to install mandatory panic buttons on all mobile phones. Under new regulations taking force in 2017, all new mobile phones will be pre-configured to send out a distress signal including geo-coordinates when activated. Pressing the on-off button three times in a row would activate smartphones; older handsets would have the panic button configured to buttons five or nine.

Announcing the move, Minister Maneka Sanjay Gandhi congratulated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a "historic step which aims at providing a security net to millions of women who face distress situation in day to day life." The accompanying press release, with its language of "rescuing" women from "distress situations," reinforce inaccurate and gendered tropes about the reality of sexual violence. For the most part, the people women need rescuing from aren't strangers lurking in external "distress situations," but the men in their own homes: husbands, uncles, and neighbors.

Meanwhile, developers keen to cash in on India's booming telecoms industry compete to bring panic-button style apps to market. According to 2015 figures from the Internet and Mobile Association of India, there are 220 million Indian smartphone users. While that figure sounds huge, only 30 percent of Indians actually have smartphones—meaning there are mythic piles of cash out there waiting for those with enough app savvy. Offerings include One Touch Response, which dispatches a rescue team when alerted, and I Feel Safe (backed by the Mobile Standards Alliance of India), which connects victims to police when the power button is pressed five times continuously.

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Priyanka Nirankari from I Feel Safe explains their ambition is to "make our country safe and secure, so that women can feel free and not restricted." Like many of the people I interview for this piece, the tragic 2012 Delhi gang rape of the woman known across India as Nirbhaya is cited as a powerful motivator. (In fact, funding for this national panic button initiative comes out of the government's Nirbhaya Fund.) "When we heard about the Nirbhaya case, we felt so bad that we decided to make something that can help women to feel safe. Our goal is to implement a secure and fast system, through which no women is victimized and torched like Nirbhaya."

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One Touch Response has similar aims. In a phone call, CEO Manoj Chandra says that the company was set up in response to the Nirbhaya's murder. They currently have 40,000 customers in the Delhi area, who pay a 999 rupee yearly subscription—about a dollar a month—for the service. "Many of our customers are female professionals who work late and want to be sure of their safety on their way home. So we're there to help them, to meet them, to make them feel safe and get them to a place of safety."

One Touch promises to dispatch a team to meet you within 15 minutes of your personal emergency, kind of like having your very own superhero. Does Chandra believe technology can keep people safe? "Technology is an enabler. It's not a result by itself. Creating the panic buttons in the mobile phone can help, but unless there is a response when you press the button, that button has no meaning."

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While panic button apps can be effective in urban contexts, millions of women in rural India don't have access to mobile technology. According to figures from Delhi-based research institute ICRIER, Internet access in India is starkly divided along gender lines. In rural areas, only 12 percent of women have access, compared to 88 percent of men. It works out to around three million rural women, and 28 million urban women in total.

Professor Rajat Kathuria of ICRIER says that women in rural areas are unlikely to benefit from panic buttons. "Very few women in rural areas have access to the Internet. The gender as well as location divide is expected to be present even for smartphones. In the absence of greater access to smartphones and Internet for women, as well as wider digital literacy, panic button apps are likely to have limited rural impact."

Meanwhile, existing apps struggle to make an impact. Professor Kathuria tells me that Delhi Police's Himmat app has been beset by problems. Of the 3,416 complaints received by the app, only 45 were 'genuine.' "In most cases, people just dialled the SOS number after downloading it to check it was working. However, as with all new technologies, such apps will go through teething pains as user awareness increases and trust is built." Despite this, there is a huge public appetite for such apps, Nirankari explains. "Since we announced the app, our phones have been ringing constantly. The majority of people calling are working women who travel a lot, and then the elderly."

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What remains to be seen is whether panic buttons or alert apps can disrupt the cycle of violence against women. I asked Dr Indu Agnihotri, director of the Center for Women's Development Studies, if the situation has improved in India. "There are more legal measures in place, such as the 2005 domestic violence act and 2013's anti-rape laws, but I don't think there's any evidence the situation has actually improved.

"You particularly see the huge inequality in our country in terms of the stress on rural poor. There are structural factors that embed violence against women, issues to do with patriarchal social attitudes. For the large majority of rural poor in India who face violence and insecurity, these apps won't help—none of them can afford the technology, and very often it takes a long time for police to show up at crimes scenes as it is."

While well intentioned, the reality is that panic buttons and alert apps place the burden of responsibility on women to report crimes, rather than addressing the systemic factors that perpetuate sexual violence. For women like 29-year-old Manjusha Madhu, a Delhi-based student, such apps are little more than a Band-Aid. "We need to move beyond just talking about sexual violence as a law and order issue. I think technology can play a very instrumental role in facilitating women's safety.

"However, I think it can only be a facilitator and much more in-depth and serious measures need to be adopted—those that kill the disease and not just the symptom. The only solution is to get Indians to discuss the massive burden that women have to bear in the name of tradition in our society."

When you live in a country so pessimistic about its ability to keep you safe that the government prescribes panic buttons to an entire population, it's easy to feel like there's a long way to go before things get better for Indian women.