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In this guest post, Keshet Bachan, gender equality activist and blogger at The XX Factor, questions whether mobile phone applications addressing street violence are an effective way to prevent violence against women. What do you think? 

Can mobile ‘apps’ really prevent or discourage instances of violence against women? This question has been on my mind since a colleague shared this video from Voice of America about a mobile app called ‘Fight Back’, marketed as ‘India’s first mobile app for women’s safety’.

The video sparked an email discussion that raised some interesting questions that deserve a closer examination.

The VOA story provides a holistic view of violence against women and the developers of the mobile phone application admit that they are but one element in a broader system that needs to respond to instances of violence. They discuss the involvement of police and other duty bearers, such as municipal bodies, which need to address reports women make and do more to reduce their risks. I applaud this approach and the way in which the developers acknowledge the limitations of their application, which I find refreshing.

At the same time I feel this application distracts attention away from more prevalent (and deadly) issues. According to the World Health Organization 10-69% of women stated that they had been physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. The WHO also reports that 40-70% of female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner. A recent survey in the UK showed that one in three girls aged 13 – 17 reported sexual abuse from a partner and one in four had experienced some form of physical partner violence. The UK police receive a call for help regarding relationship abuse every minute.

The degree to which this mobile phone application promotes the notion of ‘stranger danger’ distracts attention from the urgent and more prevalent issue of family and intimate partner violence. Moreover, the fact that the application has a GPS tracker to trace a woman’s route home could inadvertently contribute to both increasing women’s fear of violence in public spaces as well as playing into the hands of those who seek to control women’s mobility by pleading the need to ‘protect’ them by knowing their whereabouts at all times.

In this context a colleague commented that a GPS enabled function could allow ‘even a moderately tech-savvy user to trace the woman in question’ – which could serve to increase traditional control over women who dare to step outside the confines of convention (and the home) even further.

There’s a disparity between the actual risk of being molested or assaulted in the street, and the level to which women fear it. One thing this mobile app could help with is mapping the actual instances of violence. This could in fact serve to reduce women’s fear, proving that violence outside the home is not as common or as severe as people might believe. At the same time the app could also shed light on the places where women are more prone to abuse (dark alleys or well lit train stations?) and call for concrete actions like streetlights to improve safety.

The application (as always) leaves it up to women to try protect themselves and does little to tackle the root causes of violence. For instance, research from India (where this application was developed) found that almost all police officers interviewed agreed that ‘a husband is allowed to rape his wife’, while 68% of judges felt that ‘provocative attire was an invitation to rape’ (Khan and Battacharya, 2010). The application would do well to connect its users to a platform for social mobilization and consciousness raising work that could create a critical mass of people who will work together to challenge traditional attitudes around gender.

Some of the other questions raised by this application, and others of its ilk, concern the development of such applications and the development of technology itself.

Does the sex of the person developing the application have an impact on the relevance of the application for persons of the opposite sex (i.e. can men develop useful applications for women)? Is technology itself biased in favor of one gender over the other (i.e. is technology inherently male)? As these questions assume rigid gender binaries the answer must inevitably be ‘no’. At the same time, research has shown that women use technology differently and that they are not well represented amongst technology developers.

Technology can be useful to both sexes and really it is a question of how one applies it that counts. In the same vein, it shouldn’t matter who’s behind developing the application but whether or not the application is answering a real need. (Let us recall that simply being a woman, doesn’t mean you’re more in touch with other women — the CEO of playboy is Hugh Hefner’s daughter).

I’m not convinced that women need a mobile phone application to protect them from strangers on a dark street. If I were asked ‘what do you think would make the streets of Delhi safer for women’, an app is not the first thing that would spring to my mind.

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