Leveraging technology to keep women safe


  • Nation
  • Sunday, 27 Jan 2019

Have app, will be safe: Women around the world are increasingly turning to technology to stay safe in public spaces.

NEW web and phone apps are helping women stay safe in public spaces by making it easier for them to report harassment and get help.

Safety is the biggest concern for women using public and private transport, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey released in November last year.

“Women always strategise on how to access public spaces – from how to dress to what mode of transport to take, timings and whether they should travel alone or in a group,” says Sameera Khan, columnist and co-author of Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets.

Nowhere is this truer than in India, where government data show that reported cases of crime against women have risen by more than 80% between 2007 and 2016.

The fatal gang rape of a young medical student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012 put the spotlight on the dangers women face in India’s public spaces.

The incident spurred Supreet Singh of charity Red Dot Foundation to create the SafeCity app that encourages women across 11 Indian cities to report harassment and flag hotspots.

“We want to bridge the gap between the ground reality of harassment in public spaces and what is actually being reported,” says Supreet Singh.

The aim is to take the spotlight off the victim and focus on the areas where crimes are committed so action can be taken.

Dimly lit lanes, crowded public transport, paths leading to community toilets, basements, parking lots and parks are places where Indian women feel most vulnerable. Stigma attached to sexual harassment and an insensitive police reporting mechanism result in many cases going unreported.

But apps like SafeCity promise anonymity to women reporting crimes and share data collected through the app with relevant government agencies.

“The data has helped in many small ways,” says Supreet Singh.

“From getting the police to increase patrolling in an area prone to ‘eve-teasing’ to getting authorities to increase street lighting in dark alleys, the app is bringing change.”

When SafeCity started mapping sexual violence in public spaces in India six years ago, it found public toilets in the Sanjay camp slum of Delhi were hotspots for attacks, Elsa D’Silva, one of SafeCity’s founders told The Guardian newspaper.

“We wondered why, then we realised the toilet doors were missing, ” she was quoted a saying.

When women went to the toilets – the only option for many people in the area – local boys would hang around nearby, take video clips of them on their phones and shout comments. So the women were drinking less water and only using the toilets late at night, risking an attack in the darkness, said D’Silva.

Armed with data from the SafeCity app, local residents and students pressured the police into fixing the toilets. But they didn’t stop there; they also sat with local boys and showed them the harm they were causing.

The community, including many of the boys, came together to pressure the authorities to take women’s safety seriously, the British daily reported. And it worked; the toilets were given doors, and fewer assaults have been recorded.

Since it was launched, SafeCity has been used by 500,000 people in India, including police and municipal and transport authorities.

The crowdsourced mapping platform is now available in over 50 cities in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal. SafeCity estimates it has the largest crowd-sourced story collection in the world at 12,000 stories.

Police in many Indian cities are also encouraging women to use apps to register complaints, promising prompt action.

SafeCity is not alone in its mission to transform public spaces for women. In India alone, there are other apps like My Safetipin and Himmat (courage). Around the world, other women are creating databases, blogs and heatmaps to document street harassment.

HarassMap, set up in 2010, is successfully mapping street harassment in Egypt. Women anonymously report incidents by texting a hotline, using social media or via the site. The reports are categorised by types of harassment and visualised on an online map.

The map is taking off around the world and activists in more than 80 countries are setting up their own versions. Anna Liakopoulou and Georgia Papantoni set up Sex Harass Map in Athens using Google Maps in 2016. They say they hope it will change sexist attitudes and Greek laws.

In Australia, Plan International Australia gave young women in Sydney an app to collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment there. The group also gave apps to young women in Madrid, Spain; Lima, Peru; and Kampala, Uganda; as part of its study. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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