As I went through my daily news this morning, I came across this gem:

India’s first female-oriented gun designed to prevent rapes.

gun14n-1-web

As much as I am a fan of technology, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself: Why are we not spending more time educating men on why rape is wrong and stimulating behavior change that will be more long-lasting and less bloody than equipping women with guns? Why is our response from the tech side something totally ridiculous, especially given that I imagine India doesn’t have tons of gun ranges for women to even practice use of their new, ‘dainty’ weapons?

If we are to continue going this route, perhaps somewhat of a middle ground is the self-defense app championed by Mary Kom. Mary, who is a world-class boxer and Olympic medalist, is creating an app for Indian women that “…offers hints and tips to staying safe as well as a free SMS-based service.”

Mary Kom

Ms. Kom has also partnered with Vodafone India to create the first female “fight club” in the country. This seems like quite an unexpected and unlikely pairing, but I am interested to see how this pans out. Although, it almost implies that men are raping women because they are not strong enough to fight back or don’t know how; thereby still making it the woman’s fault when she is raped.

I long for the day when combating rape places more or at least equal burden on the men than it does the women when it comes to prevention… and for the day when the tech that is imagined for this cause is more appropriate for the context of use.

Back in March I co-authored a blog post with Sarah Johns about the proliferation of mobile-based tools to aid women when they are facing gender-based violence. Spurred in part by a rash of globally publicized rape incidents involving women and girls (most notably in India), these mobile tools were either lauded or questioned because of their utility and relevance to the contexts in which they were being used. A common yet sometimes forgotten refrain on the topic is that it is important to teach men and boys not to rape in addition to any other protective measures women and girls might use mobiles for in order to prevent or alert others to threats of gender-based violence they face. One initiative that I think may be another step in the right direction is the launch of ‘Help Emergency Assistance Rescue Terminal’, or HEART in Gujarat State, India.

 

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This toll-free service was launched so that police can have immediate contact with and a better response time to women and girls who are subjected to distress. One thing that I believe is unique and potentially very helpful is the fact that women only need to dial the toll-free number (which can be accessed via mobile or a landline) and their location will be pinpointed and police sent right away. This sounds similar to emergency response services in the US. Other promising aspects of this service:

  1. Women and girls will be encouraged to register their details (in either Gujarati or Hindi, so bonus points for language accessibility) so that when the help line receives a call from the woman or girl, up to 10 of her designated contacts will be notified, too;
  2. Police personnel are being trained to respond to women and girls that are encountering or have encountered violence, in addition to gender-based violence sensitivity training.

 

Nevertheless, I will reserve my excitement on this development after finding an article from December 2012 which raises questions about whether this service is legitimate.

Fake India help line number

A previous help line launched in Gujarat State with the same ‘1091’ number was found to direct callers to a shop keeper instead of the police! At the time, police spokespeople had no explanation for the mix-up and initially thought that the problem was isolated to calls received from mobiles; it was found that landlines were directed to the shop keeper as well. Given this, one can only hope that the revamped version of HEART has been tested to ensure that women and girls can receive the help that they need if they use the service.

Overall, I think that this initiative is one that has great potential if women and girls are connected to police when they need it because it will entail a collaborative response effort and involve law enforcement who have been made aware on some level what the women and girls might be going through. HEART seems to buck the mobile hype in this area to create a tool that is sustainable, localized and affordable for users. It will be interesting to see if other Indian states follow suit and what will happen to those found guilty of any violent acts.

This is a co-researched post with international girl advocate phenom Sarah Johns who works for Plan International. With this post we recognise that today is International Women’s Day and that much remains to be done to ensure that women and girls throughout the world feel – and are – safe in their communities.

 

Rehana, 15, walks head down through the Delhi streets to her school, 15 minutes from home. When she walks past the local park, the boys stop playing cricket and stare, whistle and make rude comments. She shares the public toilet nearest her home with 250 other people, and knows of girls who have been attacked there. She and her friends are pretty creative when it comes to ways of protecting themselves: chilli powder and safety pins are the current home-made weapons of choice. Rehana also learns martial arts. She says “If there’s one thing girls should learn in life, it’s karate.”

A city is an uneasy environment for girls. Anyone who has grown up in an urban landscape knows what it means to be street-wise. Staying safe as you travel around is like a dangerous game, trying to stay one step ahead of your assailants. Yet cities can also provide crucial opportunities for education and employment for girls. Each month, five million people are added to the cities of the developing world, and it is estimated that by 2030, approximately 1.5 billion girls will live in urban areas. [1]

Plan International’s latest research [2] with over 1,400 girls and boys in five cities in low and middle income countries shows some disturbing results. In most cities, only a small minority of girls felt ‘always safe’ in their city; in Kampala, Uganda, 80% of the girls who New Plan reporttook part reported feeling ‘very unsafe’ or ‘unsafe’ in public spaces and in Delhi, over half of the girls ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ felt safe on public transport, with similar numbers reported for public spaces.

In cities like Delhi, women and girls are also increasingly turning to technology to keep themselves safe. In the wake of the recent highly publicised attacks, there’s been a huge growth in mobile phone apps aimed at helping women to call for help if they are threatened. Apps like FightBack, developed by two female journalists, Shweta Punj and Hindol Sengupta, records your location on a Google map and posts a message to your Facebook wall and well as sending an SMS to your friends and family.

In many countries, mobiles are also seen by parents as a way of keeping a virtual eye on their daughters, keeping in touch wherever they are. Apps like BSafe and MobileKids, created by female entrepreneur Silje Vallestad, both became popular with parents in New York in the wake of a hike in violent incidents last summer. The apps transform their child’s phone into a personal alarm/parental monitoring system.

Yet despite reports that nine out of ten women feel safer by having a mobile phone [3], some bloggers question the efficacy of using mobile apps to address violence against girls and women in cities. Apps don’t deal with the underlying causes of violence against girls in cities, and may even supply would-be attackers with location information and 24/7 access to their victim. And whilst mobile apps are useful for those with a smartphone, the most vulnerable girls may not have access to a phone at all.

Moraba is one app that might just change the game for girls. Developed for feature phone and aimed at teenagers, particularly boys, the app was influenced by extensive interviews with young Southern Africans about violence against girls.

 Moraba

Moraba’s goal is to change boys’ attitudes, in particular those attitudes that could lead to domestic violence as adults.

We guess the reality is that technology is a tool, not a solution, in combating violence against girls in city environments. Developers must take care to manage expectations of what can be achieved with their app. One step towards this would be to research how and why these apps benefit girls, while also identifying – and modifying – areas where girls might become more susceptible to violence through the use of those apps. And the individual nature of mobile phones means that somehow, the design of the response must incorporate ways to build collective awareness within the community (including with religious, law enforcement and government officials) of the challenges that girls face.

Perhaps we’d be better taking our lead from the girls themselves. Plan International’s research, which will be used to advocate for the inclusion of girls within city planning processes, found startling similarities across all five cities with the changes girls wanted to see: public spaces that were well-lit and clean, safe public transport and accessible public services were the top priorities. As Rehana says, “When girls feel safe, they can go outside of their homes. If we don’t move ahead, we’ll be left behind.”

See Rehana and other girls from Delhi project talk about their experiences at http://youtu.be/667O4peOzco

Find out more about Plan International’s Safer Cities research at www.plan-international/girls

[1] Plan International (2010). Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2010. Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape. Woking, Plan International.
[2] Plan International (2013). Adolescent girls’ eye view of cities: a rapid needs assessment in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima. Toronto: Plan International.
[3] GSM Association/Cherie Blair Foundation (2011). Women and mobile: a global opportunity. London: GSMA.