News / Asia

Indian Mobile Phone App Aims to Thwart Sexual Assaults

A recently launched mobile phone application in India called 'Fight Back' aims to protect women against sexual assault as more women in nation's growing economy join the work force in urban areas, January 2012.
A recently launched mobile phone application in India called 'Fight Back' aims to protect women against sexual assault as more women in nation's growing economy join the work force in urban areas, January 2012.
Kurt Achin

In India's burgeoning economy, more and more women are going to work in offices - exposing them to what can sometimes be dangerous urban conditions. Now, a new technological initiative aims to protect women against sexual assault.

Cheena Sikka is typical of the modern, professional Indian woman. She works hard. She works late.

When her shift is finished, a company cab takes her part of the way home. But she worries about the five to 10 minutes she has to walk alone to reach her door.

"It's dark and the kind of people who are around, you cannot feel safe with them. I'm not very comfortable walking all alone," said Sikka.

'Fight Back' tracks location

So, before the cab even starts moving, Cheena activates a recently launched mobile phone application called "Fight Back." It begins tracking her exact location via GPS.

"The moment you feel uncomfortable, you really don't need to do anything else but press one button," said Sikka.

Jagdish Mitra is CEO of Canvasm Technologies, the tech company that developed Fight Back.

When a user presses the panic button, she has a few seconds to cancel her decision. If she doesn't, a location-specific alert is sent out via text message, email, and on Facebook to any friends and family she has chosen to include in a list.

Data from users is collated into an interactive map. Mitra said his company keeps an eye on the map - but does not serve as a public monitoring center.

"We are not in the provision of managing the law, if you may. The law has to be managed by the people who actually are authorized to do it, which is the police and so on and so forth," said Mitra.

Making cities safer

Delhi's poorly lit streets can be forbidding. Official 2010 statistics, with more than 400 reported sexual assaults, have led many media organizations to label the city "India's rape capital."

"While the app to me is very important and has a good role to play, I think what we have to be careful about is that it doesn't again fall back on women to solve their problem," said Kalpana Viswanath, a researcher with the women's advocacy organization Jagori, which focuses on making cities safer for women. Her research includes recommendations on better lighting, wider sidewalks, more thoughtful zoning - and what she calls a more "holistic" approach to designing city life.

"What kind of a city do we want? How are we urbanizing? If we are saying that in another 15-20 years India is going to be more urban than rural, what kind of cities do we want? So if the problem is that societies and cultures and our police and our infrastructure is wanting, then that is what we need to address," said Viswanath.

Using, improving tools

"Most women don't go to the police because in most parts of the country, the police are seen as more part of the problem than part of the solution,"  said Hindol Sengupta, a founder of Whypoll, the civic trust partner in the Fight Back project. He said police often are "lackadaisical" in enforcing complaints about safety from women.

"We're saying here's a tool - you can go to the police if you want, and so you should, and so you must," said Sengupta. "But in case you choose not to, and in case you can't reach them, you can directly reach out to your friends and family. And together, you can propel the system. You can propel the security apparatus, so to speak, to act."

The makers of Fight Back say senior police officials in Delhi and other Indian cities have expressed a keen interest in establishing formal links to the system. The approval and implementation process is likely to delay that step for several months.

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