Can a Wrist Watch Really Cure India’s Rape Problem?

“We do not want to blindly rely on a technology, viewing it as the descent of a superhero. [But] we do not at the same time wish away its potential.”

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

In late January, the Indian government announced a new project to fight the rampant sexual assault cases in the country: a wristwatch. 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 smartphone software are growing into their 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, one in five 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 midyear 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 that 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.

Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based nonprofit for girls and women, warned of getting too critical about any efforts made to promote female safety. But she agreed there are greater forces that need to be dealt with first—an app won’t change the methods of authorities who already fail to respond to crimes. “The skepticism does not arise over technology, but it instead arises over the will of the enforcers,” she said. “When we will be able to sensitize the police over the seriousness of gender issues and crimes, laws and efforts will truly become effective and meaningful.”

In 2011 the U.S. government demonstrated faith in the mobile platform’s validity in fighting sexual assault with a challenge to developers called “Apps Against Abuse.” Within six months, two winners had emerged: one, called Circle of 6, was released last spring. It makes an emergency call at the touch of a button, and includes numbers of hotlines, safe ride programs, and a GPS to find friends, or help them find you. It’s already had around 42,000 downloads. The other winner follows a similar vein, but is more emergency-oriented. On Watch offers quick emergency calls and transmits a timed SOS via text to friends if you find yourself in a vulnerable situation.

Dr. Audie Atienza, a behavioral researcher at the National Institutes of Health, worked as a program director for the government’s project. He’s confident that technology can be utilized in battling sexual violence but says its effectiveness is uncertain. “We encourage the development of this technology and think it’s really important to have, but we need more research in evaluating the effectiveness of these apps. We certainly don’t have the data to say they work,” he said. Research, Atienza lamented, moves much more slowly than technology.

In countries like India, where much of the population still isn’t able to afford smartphones, innovations like this watch have potential. But without the framework on education and advocacy, no technology will be able to singularly prevent future attacks. Meanwhile the well-intentioned push for a tech-related solution continues. Recently, the National Association of Software and Services Companies in India declared February “Women Safety Month” and launched a competition similar to that of the U.S. government, encouraging developers to build an app that keeps female citizens safe.

Dr. Kumari agrees that there is a delicate balance to consider. “At the given moment, we do understand that the use of digital has not proved itself in any known case. Therefore, we do not want to blindly rely on a technology, viewing it as the descent of a superhero,” she says. “[But] we do not at the same time wish away its potential.” The potential is too enormous to overlook when it means avoiding a disaster on the scale India endured in December.