Technology & Women's Safety in India

Growing up in Mumbai, I was taught that I faced limits that my younger brother did not. Because I was a girl, I had to be smart. I knew that late at night, I couldn’t walk on the streets alone, even with girl friends. I had to be careful about the way I dressed. I always needed to have my phone charged and to check in with my parents when I was out at night. Even now, every single time I leave the house, my parents will want to know: Where I am going? With whom? When I am going to be back—and most importantly, how I am getting home? My parents don’t let me take taxis at night (although my brother often does), and public transport after dark is out of the question.


This isn’t a sob story about how restricted my life is, because it’s really not. And, of course, I’ve grown up with the privilege of a liberal family and the option to choose ‘safe’ transportation methods, which is not necessarily the case for many others. But I know I have to be more careful because I am a woman.


There has recently been a lot of media attention around India and women’s security. Though it’s worth remembering that the point is not whether India is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other countries—there are countries that are more safe or less safe for women—crime rates of violence against women in India are unacceptably high. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped every day, which comes out to one sexual assault approximately every 15 minutes. More broadly, there are over 800 cases of sexual harassment and violence against women in India every day.


In December of 2012, a young medical student was gang raped aboard a bus in Delhi. Mainstream media extensively covered the details of her assault, the protests that followed, and the hurt and outrage felt by so many. Jyoti Singh’s (or “Nirbhaya’s”) assault brought India’s poorly concealed secret out into the open; since then, more and more news coverage has been devoted to sexual assaults, and women’s safety (or lack thereof) is no longer discussed behind closed doors.


On 5th December, 2014, a 27-year-old woman in New Delhi on her way home from a party was raped by her Uber driver. Her case made headlines worldwide and shocked the public: Predominantly used by a more corporate-professional crowd, it was widely assumed that the ride-sharing service was reliable and comparatively safer than taxis or public transportation—for both men and women. But people soon realised that Uber drivers in India were not subject to the same seven-year background checks as Uber drivers in America: The driver accused of rape had been arrested on suspicion of molestation in 2003, illegal possession of a locally made pistol in 2006, and raping a woman in his village in 2013. A thorough background check would have shown him to be unsuitable for the job.


Following the incident, Uber issued numerous statements of regret and subsequently ceased operations in India for a month and a half. When services resumed in January of 2015, the company instituted new background check requirements and unveiled India-specific features designed to ensure the safety of its passengers. ‘Send Status’ allows passengers to share driver, vehicle and journey details with friends and family. The ‘SOS button’ enables riders to call 100 (India’s police emergency number) with just two taps. However, many media outlets and Uber users have called these changes ‘cosmetic at best.’


In the years since ‘Nirbhaya,’ several applications have been developed in response to the clear need for safer transportation for women. If you shake your phone vigorously, IGoSafely will activate, sending out alert emails and texts to your contacts every 30 seconds with your GPS position, street address (if available), and a 30-second audio recording. Women Safety Secured recognizes shouting and crying as distress signals and sends text messages to emergency contacts with the user’s location.


These new applications, these campaigns—Uber’s new ‘India-friendly features—certainly may assist in improving women’s safety, as it is now easier than ever for others to be notified of potentially dangerous situations. However, we must ask ourselves: Are these simply reactive fixes? Instead of merely providing them with ways out of dangerous situations, can technology enable women to make informed transportation decisions? Can technology play more than a ‘band-aid’ role?


Safetipin, another new app, aims to ‘take the issue of women’s safety to the one place they can best control—their own hands.’ The app aggregates crowdsourcing and in-house safety audit data to map the safety scores of various areas. Red pins flag unsafe zones, characterized by the lack of certain quantitative parameters—number of streetlights, number of women in the public space, visibility, and distance to public transport. Users can also plot their own locations and invite trusted friends or relatives to track their movement.


With over 6,000 audits and counting, Safetipin and its creators hope that their data will inform urban planning and governmental policy. Their many suggestions for improvement include increased lighting along roads and inside bus terminals, and increased seats and toilets in public transport terminals. Safetipin’s data has enormous potential for a variety of applications driven by actors from all sectors of society—NGOs can advocate for the creation of safer spaces, and governmental designs can draw on the app’s suggestions for improvement.


Women’s lack of security while traveling stems from patriarchy, which has been deeply ingrained in Indian society for centuries. Though people always talk about long-term efforts to change societal attitudes, more attention should be given to technological stopgap measures. The range of applications being released is broad; while many are still in a nascent stage, these apps could gain widespread usage with appropriate marketing campaigns. Increasing the speed of intervention in an unsafe situation or helping women identify unsafe areas to avoid (and for the government to address) are creative interim solutions to this devastating social issue.


How else can we increase government attention and accountability to issues that improve women’s safety? How can we increase knowledge and awareness about women’s rights? Can we connect women that understand and support one another? What else can be done? We invite you to join us on the 8th of April to discuss how technology can be used to improve women’s safety in India in an attempt to bring forth change and have an impact beyond our campus.

This piece was jointly written by Jahnvi Vaidya and Angad Bagai.