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Can Tech Stop Sex Attacks in India?

Technological tools are emerging to connect women with police in India – but the country’s overworked and understaffed force might not be able to respond effectively enough, say women’s advocates.

Written by Pamposh Raina Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An Indian woman uses her mobile phone as she waits for a bus in New Delhi, India. AP/Tsering Topgyal

NEW DELHI, India – Women traveling on buses in India will soon be able to alert the police if they are in distress by hitting a panic button. The Indian government recently announced that buses would be fitted with closed-circuit television cameras and a tracking system that will be activated with a push of the button. The footage will be recorded and relayed live to a police control room and the bus route will be traceable.

It was on a moving bus in the heart of New Delhi that a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped and brutally assaulted by six men in December 2012, which led to her death days later. The incident sparked outrage on the streets of India and shone an international spotlight on sexual violence against women in the country.

Almost three and a half years later and after much deliberation, the government is in the process of implementing measures aimed at making public transport safer for women. An attempt is being made to use technology to offer women a sense of safety, even as the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau of India reveal a continued rise in reported sexual offenses and crimes against women – with the conviction rate for such crimes as low as 21.3 percent.

Sundari Nanda, a Delhi Police special commissioner who handles women’s safety, says that in addition to the existing emergency helplines operated by police, panic buttons would offer another way for citizens to get in touch with the police.

“Women get in touch with us through the Himmat app when they are harassed or face domestic violence,” Nanda says of the mobile app launched by Delhi Police last year.

“Himmat,” a Hindi word for strength, allows female smartphone users to send a distress alert to police as well as friends and family listed on the app. More than 30,000 people have registered with the police through the app and it has been downloaded nearly 70,000 times.

Nanda says Delhi Police have even received hoax alerts from users of the app who activated it just to test whether or not the police would respond.

There is concern among women activists that, as technology is being harnessed to ensure greater police focus on crimes against women, the Indian police force does not have the manpower or training to support such initiatives; the country has one of the lowest police-to-citizen ratios in the world, with just 138 police per 100,000 people.

“Even if you dial 100 [an emergency number] the response is so inadequate,” says Kirti Singh, a women’s rights lawyer, of India’s police helpline.

According to figures available with the Bureau of Police and Development, the Indian police force is understaffed by about 24 percent. “The police [force] is short-staffed and not gender-sensitized enough. We need extensive police reform,” Singh says.

Nanda dismissed criticism of the Indian policing system. She says the force’s challenge is to make sure that the apps and panic buttons are integrated well with the existing emergency response mechanism. At present, India has separate helplines handling different crises situations, but 112 will soon become the centralized number to be dialed for help in case of any emergency.

The government is in the process of mandating that all mobile phones be equipped with an emergency feature. With more than one billion mobile subscribers among its population of 1.3 billion, India has the largest subscriber base in the world besides China. There is an abundance of cheap Chinese handsets on the Indian market, so mobile phones are often the only phones – and in many cases the only computers – owned by Indian households.

But, issues of patchy connectivity and frequent “call drops” need to be addressed by telecom service providers to ensure that the proposed panic button feature on cellphones can efficiently connect women to an emergency response system.

Though it could be a while before evidence can be documented about the efficacy and usage pattern of tech-driven women’s safety initiatives, there is a popular perception that educated, city-bred women are more likely to use apps or other emergency features to report any kind of physical abuse or sexual harassment. This could mean that women in remote or rural parts of India may not have the same tools available to report a crime.

In a study conducted in low-income neighborhoods across Delhi by U.N. Women in partnership with Microsoft between October 2013 and July 2014, researchers observed that male family members often restricted women’s mobile phone ownership and control.

“Women who participated in the study told the interviewers that if there was one button on the phone they could use to activate an emergency response system, they would like that,” says Sonal Jaitly, a program associate for U.N. Women in India.

Jaitly noted that ever since the infamous Delhi gang-rape, women’s safety apps have mushroomed, creating what she says is a false sense of security because not all of them are connected to an emergency response system.

“Promoting a distress app is putting a lot of responsibility on women,” Jaitly says. “In the end it is about addressing the structural inequalities first.”

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