India: fighting gender violence with mobile tech?

Apr 26, 2016, 2:07 PM EDT
Side street in Paldi. Avon cycle. (Source: Meena Kadri/flickr)
Side street in Paldi. Avon cycle. (Source: Meena Kadri/flickr)

In India, where reported incidents of violence against women are soaring, both public and private sectors are looking at how technology can aid in curbing gender-based crimes, notably rape. India’s government announced this week that it is placing a mandate on all mobile phones sold in the country: each device sold after January 2017 must have a panic button feature to enable the user to call for help.

Despite heightened national and international attention on India’s violence against women problem following the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, amidst other high-profile rapes and murders, there was a 9% increase in reported rapes from 2013 to 2014, reports ReutersBloomberg writes that about four rapes an hour occur in India. All of these figures demonstrate to what extent the country has failed to address its severe gender-based crime problem.

India’s Ministry of communications and technology also said that every mobile phone sold after January 2018 must have a build-in global positioning system (GPS) — a provision that will be harder to mandate in cheaper mobile devices. In its statement, the ministry wrote: "Technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better (use) than ... for the security of women.” 

The panic button feature would allow users to initiate an emergency call by keeping a finger pressed on number 5 or 9 on a mobile device or pressing the home button three times on smartphones. These rather specific requirements from New Delhi come as the government looks to be growing more desperate for systematic changes to counter the growing volume of violent acts against women.

And the government is not the only entity looking at how to use technology to curb violence. Blouin News reported last year on startups including SafeCity and Safetipin that aim to enable users to create data-based maps of crimes and spread awareness about potentially dangerous neighborhoods. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has come under fire from Indian and foreign groups since he took office in May 2014 for his administration's lack of response to India's outrageous violence-against-women statistics. Recently, the U.K.’s Foreign Office released a review of global human rights problems, citing violence to women and girls in India as a particular concern. Critics of Modi are either angry at his inability to address the issue or his speeches about aiming to stem violence that have proven fruitless (or both). While the problem is systemic, India faces particular challenges due to its low police-to-citizen ratios and cultural norms that allow gender-based crimes to go largely unreported. Will GPS and panic buttons help? Only time will tell.