Don’t Panic: India Tackles Women’s Safety With Technology
Entrepreneurs create innovative applications and wearable technology to combat epidemic of sexual violence
The technology sector is responding to the rise in sexual violence against women in India with a slew of innovative solutions, including wearable devices and software applications.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women globally have been sexually or physically abused—amounting to some 800 million people worldwide. In the United States alone, 90 percent of young women have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, according to research recently carried out by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Overall, India tops the list of most dangerous countries in the world for women. In a Thomson Reuters Foundation study released last month, the country was ranked as having the highest incidences of sexual violence, ahead of Syria and Afghanistan, which ranked second and third, respectively.
Anu Jain, an entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the U.S., founded the $1 million Women’s Safety XPRIZE competition to address the issue. The initiative incentivizes the creation of affordable technologies that promote women’s safety, even in regions with low levels of Internet connectivity or access to cell phones.
“Safety is a stepping stone to gender equality and unless we fix that problem, how are we going to move forward?” Jain posed rhetorically to The Media Line. “That’s when I got the idea to create the prize.”
Jain, who grew up in Israel, travelled throughout the globe during her childhood, including India.
“It didn’t matter which country I was in, safety was always an issue,” she recounted. “My dad, [a former United Nations diplomat], took me and my sisters to different parts of India. The harassment that we faced and how unsafe it was for girls and women there just stuck in my head.”
Fittingly, Indian start-up Leaf Wearables won this year’s Women’s Safety XPRIZE. The company created SAFER Pro, “smart jewelry” such as wristwatches and necklaces embedded with a small chip that, when activated, sends an emergency alert to contacts and records audio of a potential incident.
“We wanted to solve the problem of women’s safety,” Manik Mehta, co-founder of Leaf Wearables, asserted to The Media Line. “We’re from Delhi, which is supposedly one of the most unsafe places out there,” adding that his wearable technology is designed specifically for women who “are not in a position to use their phones.”
Violence against women in India has risen in recent years, with a new attack registered every two minutes to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). This includes incidences of honor killings, female infanticide and domestic abuse, among other crimes. A UNICEF survey found that India also has the highest number of child brides in the world, with nearly a third of girls married off before the age of 18. The number of rapes has been rising as well, with 38,947 cases reported in 2016, up from 34,210 the year before.
“We’ve had a lot of people in India interested in our wearable safety products, even the government is trying to get involved,” Mehta said. “Emergency systems in India are all decentralized and disorganized. Each city has different numbers for different services, but it’s going to take a while for the government to get a central system up and running.”
Another technology that has gained popularity in the country is bSafe, a personal “panic button” in the form of a mobile application that sends an emergency message to selected contacts and provides them with real-time GPS tracking. Silje Vallestad, an entrepreneur and investor from Norway who founded bSafe in 2007, said the company was initially launched as a security service for children, but that mothers have ended up using it instead.
“bSafe was developed to handle a range of situations where you need to get help really fast,” Vallestad explained to The Media Line. “We looked at how can we use technology combined with GPS tracking, video and audio recording to ensure that people know who you are, where you are, and what’s happening in the moment.”
The app also includes a range of other features, such as a call service that allows women to receive a fake incoming call in order to extricate themselves from threatening situations.
“bSafe is still the most used personal safety app in the world and it has saved a lot of lives everywhere, especially in India,” Vallestad noted. “Women absolutely want these technologies; they feel vulnerable and it’s a global phenomenon.”
A few years ago, Vallestad exited from bSafe because she found it difficult to monetize the service. Her latest venture is FutureTalks, a platform designed to encourage young people to connect with leading scientists, tech experts, artists and thinkers.
Despite the financial hurdles she encountered, Vallestad believes that the current systems in place for dealing with women’s safety are becoming obsolete and thus new technologies will emerge out of necessity.
“To me it’s so obvious that there’s no reason why you should call 911 or anyone else,” she affirmed to The Media Line. “If you’re in a situation where you need to trigger an alarm, you just won’t have time in those kinds of situations. Technology is making it possible to make this process automatic.”
Vallestad, Jain and other pioneers recognize that technology alone cannot solve the issue of violence against women, as it does not address the root cause of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, they believe that ultimately the growing prevalence of safety technologies could induce people to think twice before perpetrating an attack.
“Changing the mindset is obviously the answer to the problem, but that’s going to take generations,” Jain argued. “We have technology in our hands, so let’s use it to provide immediate relief.”