Kerala police has launched an app, Nirbhayam, for the safety of women. While the initiative sounds great on paper, we wanted to question the role of tech-based solutions to protect women against sexual violence.
But, before we dive into the topic, here’s a story that women can resonate with. A story of sexual violence.
8:30 in the morning. As I was riding my scooter, I knew a guy was following me in his bike. My heart pounding, I knew I had to either escape or face the stranger. He kept on following me. I was so close to reaching home, but I didn’t want to give him the pleasure of knowing where I lived so I just rode. He still followed. I stopped my scooter. He stopped too. Do you want to know what he told me? “I have not seen a girl wearing shorts in this area so I wanted to follow.” Unable to digest what he just said, the audacity, I took some time to respond as I was shit-scared. All that came out of my mouth was “Stop following me or else follow me to the police station.” I put up a strong face, but I remember shivering from within. The guy didn’t budge. He was confident I wouldn’t do anything. When a passerby stopped, the guy on the bike fled the scene, saying, “If you want to live in a place like this, don’t wear such revealing clothes.” All I was left thinking – Why didn’t I do more?
It’s a scary world out there for women. In 2019, India recorded 88 rape cases every day (National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB)). Every day. Read that thrice. Most of them go unreported too. In a place like Kerala where conservative ideologies and patriarchal mindset rule people’s lives, the safety of women is still a joke. The question “How do we keep women safe in public spaces?” is still a hot topic of discussion. The Nirbhayam app is an outcome of that discussion, for sure. With just a click of the Help button (for 5 seconds), the app sends an alert signal to the nearest police station. While the intention of the app is commendable, we have to question if it will actually help women who are faced with sexual violence every single day?
Let’s take a deeper look.
In an idealistic scenario, say, a woman passes by a group of harassers. She ignores them. But they follow her and continue to sexually harass her. But this time, they touch her without her permission. She takes her phone out, presses the Help button on the app, and the police immediately attend to the situation.
In a realistic scenario, timing plays a very important role. In a study conducted by Red Elephant, it was stated that out of 4,300 women surveyed, only 2,547 had safety apps on their phones – 72% of them hadn’t used them. When women are faced with sexual violence, most of their immediate reaction is fear. Not all women have the ability to fight back the situation out of shock. Sometimes, the situation is such that we won’t have the time to take the phone out and open the app to take action. The instinct to press the Help button isn’t built into us. We have to train ourselves to do it. And, one should also understand that distress situations differ a lot; it’s not one-size-fits-all. That’s just the upper layer of the problem with these saviour apps.
Access to resources also plays an important role. It brings out the economic disparity hiccup we still face. While the app works even if the internet isn’t available, the lack of a fully-functioning smartphone is still a problem. Also, not everyone can afford a smartphone. Moreover, ‘range and battery’ issues further makes it even more complicated. GPS accuracy and location tracking can get difficult. The issue of privacy and data-sharing is also problematic when it comes to apps like these.
It is equally important to understand the role of police officers. The sensitivity of the situation should be kept in mind while dealing with it. Sexual violence, big or small, is violence. It is an invasion of a person’s mental and physical space. So police officers have to be trained to deal with every situation without being blinded by patriarchy. The most common response to sexual violence against women is victim-blaming, a trope that is as old as the hills. It’s easy and convenient, but such a reaction stems from internalised misogyny and the culture of silence. Police officers should be trained to oversee their own perception and judgement about women’s behaviour.
It is relatively easy to launch an app to ‘protect women’ and gain public favour, but much harder to identify and solve the root cause of the problem. We’re not denying the fact that the Nirbhayam app might help many women stay safe in public, but it will not help change or even address the real problem, which is patriarchy.