Can a Wrist Watch Really Cure India’s Rape Problem?by Nina Strochlic Feb 24, 2013 5:45 AM EST
The Indian government is developing a wrist watch equipped with GPS and a distress button. Can it help fight the plague of sexual violence?
In late January, the Indian government announced a new project to fight the rampant sexual assault cases in the country: a wrist watch. No longer just a fashion statement or functional timepiece, the accessory boasts a built-in distress button that texts friends, family and the nearest police station with the wearer’s GPS coordinates, and a video camera that captures footage when the button is hit.
India’s information technology minister, Kapil Sibal, announced the new development project a month after the brutal rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi launched nationwide protests calling for change in the dysfunctional methods of addressing sexual violence. The briefing notes describe the project’s goal as “to develop indigenous product leveraging existing mobile spread and availability to cater to the security needs of people.” (Neither Sibal nor the government agency tasked with developing the watch responded to requests for a comment.) The watch is one of many tech-based solutions being crafted to combat rape and sexual assault by governments and tech developers across the globe. But not all activists are convinced this approach will work, and some are questioning how effective technology can be in stopping horrendous sexual assault cases like the one that shook Delhi.
Social media and smart phone software is growing into its potential to bring attention to, and even prevent, sexual assault and rape. Facebook and Twitter have been used to track sexual attacks in war zones like Syria, and to encourage prosecution in cases like Steubenville, Ohio. Hi-tech straws can detect the presence of date rape drugs in drinks. But it is the mobile platform that shows the most potential for combating an endemic of sexual violence across the globe.
Gail Abarbanel, founder and president of The Rape Foundation, one of the country’s oldest rape prevention and treatment centers, described the Indian project as “more like a ‘rape in progress’ alert than it is about prevention,” and says she hopes the government will turn its attention on men. “In so many of these situations, rapes could be prevented but not by the women who’s being sexually assaulted,” she said. “Everything that’s ever been promoted to prevent rape focuses on the victim.”
Yet Abarbanel doesn’t reject the possibility of utilizing technology to combat assault. The Rape Foundation recently partnered with tech firm Possible to develop Safebook, an app they hope to release by the end of the year. Safebook aims to shift the burden to the friend, the bystander, the person that witnesses assault by creating groups and allowing them to check in on members. Its target demographic is college women, 1 in 5 of whom report being sexually assaulted during their four years on campus. Realizing this susceptible group is spending most of its time in the digital world, the partners hope to use social media campaigns to target them where they’re most comfortable—similar to campaigns that have already been successful for gay rights awareness and bullying.
As activists work on changing mindsets, the Indian government is going technical. The watch is expected to be ready mid-year and is expected to cost between $20 and $50, which is quite steep for a market like India. And in India, not all have been swept off their feet by the announcement. Many believe the country needs to rebuild its foundation of prevention methods. The biggest problem may be the apathy authorities, and even civilians, hold toward sex crimes. One of the most disturbing details to emerge in the aftermath of the brutal Delhi rape came from the woman’s companion, who said the battered pair spent 20 minutes on the side of a busy road before anyone stopped. In Delhi, a new study published by the International Center for Research on Women revealed the startling prevalence of attacks. Almost 80 percent of participants admitted to seeing a sexual assault take place, and only 16 percent said they had intervened. Crimes are rarely reported, especially in the case of young victims. In early February, the director of Human Rights Watch in South Asia announced that children who come forward after sexual abuse “are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff and other authorities.” And just this week it was revealed that Indian police failed to investigate the rapes and murders of three young sisters.