‘App-ification’ of Women’s Security: A Cure Worse Than the Disease

In many parts in India, support and help with regard to women’s security is not just a click away.

6 min read
In many parts in India, support and help with regard to women’s safety is not just a click away.

In February 2021, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, while inaugurating ‘Sammaan’, a fortnight-long awareness programme on crimes against women put forth a rather alarming suggestion.

He proposed a new system to be put in place for the safety of women. Under this, Chouhan said, any woman moving out of her house for work should register herself at the local police station, after which she will be tracked "for her own safety".

It would appear that the Chief Minister, among others, missed the memo.

In one of his first speeches as Prime Minister on Independence Day, Narendra Modi had said that in tackling crimes against women, it was wrong to put the onus for prevention on women alone.

Yet, Chouhan’s statement is one among many other solutions that contribute to a growing trend towards techno-solutionism in promoting ‘women’s safety’ by subjecting women to 360-degree surveillance.

Against this backdrop, we must critically assess the utility, and suitability of technical surveillance measures we develop and deploy. This also gives us a standing ground to comment on the increasing myopia of technological solutions to critical problems, all of which are well intended but not necessarily useful.

The ‘App-ification’ of Women’s Security Will Not Always Equal to Support

In October 2020, Vodafone Idea Foundation, along with NASSCOM Foundation, Safety Trust and UN Women, launched ‘MyAmbar’ – an app-based solution for the safety and empowerment of women in India.

The app aims to bridge the gap between victims of gender-based domestic violence and the legal, medical and professional support available for them.

It achieves these objectives in two ways – by disseminating information for general awareness or assistance, and by providing emergency helpline numbers for external interventions.

Domestic violence has become so commonplace in our society that it often goes unnoticed or unreported. In most cases of emotional and physical abuse, the extensiveness of the incidents makes it a typical behaviour.

Owing to this, the survivor often needs external help and assessment tools to identify the existence of the problem itself. And once identified, the road to legal and medical aid in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other gender-based oppression is often complicated to navigate.

Interestingly, MyAmbar can also function in ‘stealth mode’ by hiding as a weather tool on your phone. This feature is not only useful but crucial for those potential victims of domestic violence to protect their privacy from aggressors in their immediate vicinity.

However, the app-ification of solutions to deeply rooted societal problems often fails to address the major concerns and revels in having made an attempt instead. Undoubtedly, the application is a commendable first step towards identifying the existence of a problem.

Yet, as a mobile-based app, it does not and cannot address the innumerable barriers that prevent reporting of incidents and access to the broader professional and social communities for support.

It is imperative to note that the creators made no such claims either. The application accomplishes what it claims to do – facilitate access to emergency and support services.

Thus, the point of our objection is as follows – “When your only tool to solving any problem looks like a smartphone, every solution looks like an app.” 

This emerging app-ification of women’s security increasingly appears to be a cure worse than the disease.

Idealised Approaches Don’t Always Work With Real-World Problems

Not just MyAmbar, but the many other app-based solutions to the problem of women’s security are designed to work under ideal conditions where no institutional or social barriers to accessing technology exist.

The convenience factor in the right cases is almost always appropriate. But what happens when the real world intersects the idealised approach?

We land up in a situation where an easy and elegant solution to accessing support networks for women at risk of gender-based violence like MyAmbar has a little over 500 downloads on the Android Play Store in a population of nearly 500 million women, in the fifth month after its launch.

This does not detract from the fact that the risk of women facing domestic abuse has increased manifold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic-induced nationwide lockdown.

Just 6% Women Have Access to Smartphones

The gender gap in access to technology is especially stark in India. This divide is more significant in rural India than in urban areas.

A study conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School reveals that in a sample size of 45,000 mobile phone users, less than 6 percent of women had access to smartphones. No matter which way you analyze the data, the gap in accessibility is prominent.

The effectiveness of app-based solutions to the problem of women's security is therefore questionable, if it is not even reaching 10 percent of the target population.

This assertion is also supported by the findings of the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted by designated agencies of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The 2019-20 report of the Phase 1 NFHS-5, for the first time, includes internet usage by genders as an indicator, ie the percentage of men and women in urban and rural areas who have ‘ever used the internet’.

Unsurprisingly, only 33.9 percent of women as opposed to 65.1 percent of men in urban areas have ‘ever used the internet’. This gender-based digital divide widens into a chasm in rural areas, where a mere 15.4 percent of women and 41.5 percent of the men have ‘ever used the internet’.

As of now, most of these apps are available in English only and so, the language barrier narrows down the user base even further.

Moreover, the problem of low reporting of abuse and domestic violence is not because of lack of information alone. The absence of strong laws and supportive communities play a crucial role. A low level of trust in police and society contributes significantly to the abysmally low levels of reporting of such incidents, and even lower conviction rates are as problematic.

Providing women with helpline numbers and SOS facilities won’t be of much help if the locality is small and closely knit and local assistance is not really helpful.

Our failure to adequately address domestic abuse and physical violence is as much a problem of morality in society as it is of a lack of institutional trust in law enforcement, among others.

Support Is Not Always a Click Away

The safe space that the app helps one reach out to is non-existent in most localities. In more remote and rural areas, support is not just a click away.

Most applications rely on the existing societal structure which does not necessarily provide a good standing ground. In fact, barriers to accessing smartphone technology by women itself is arguably a form of gender-based discrimination built into many communities.

Ironically, the raison d’etre of such restrictions, too, is to ensure ‘security of women’ by way of Khap Panchayats banning girls from using mobile phones to prevent any and all contact with men.

The cost of building an app-based solution to complicated problems such as women's security is minimal. This results in mushrooming of these apps.

We would argue that the point of app-ification was reached a long time ago. It is further demonstrated by the emergence of several feature lists of the best applications for women’s security

While the products themselves may be well-intentioned, the solutions have to come from a deeper analysis and a critical approach. Because even though the cost of production is less, the cost of a bad design and an ungraceful failure in extreme cases could be the life of an individual.

When it comes to innovation, there are few limitations to what technology can achieve. However, we must be vigilant against the adverse consequences of an app-ified approach to addressing gender-based violence.

In another world, where women are able to overcome barriers to access and techno-solutionism targeted perpetrators to prevent gender-specific violence instead of victims, what was reported as a cyber security flaw in an app-controlled device could be considered as a viable solution to ensure women’s security. But we can all agree, that the level of app-ification would be absurd.

(Gunjan Chawla is the Programme Manager of the Technology and National Security team at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi. Vagisha Srivastava is a Research Assistant at National Law University Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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