Indian watch aims to stop rape, but may lead to false security

Can technology make day-to-day life safer for women in India?

The spotlight has been firmly trained on the Indian government since the horrific gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a New Delhi bus in December. A massive outcry arose from many citizens, who saw the government's slow response to the incident as indicative of a general complacence in tackling violence against women, a feeling spurred on by the high number of rape incidents in the country's capital.

Protests included a candlelit vigil, which was derided by the President's son, Abhijit Mukherjee, who said: "…those who are protesting have no connection with ground reality. These pretty ladies coming out to protest are 'highly dented and painted'".

However, not all in power share this misogynist view and the government has responded to the strong public feeling with a series of measures, albeit slightly ham-fisted ones. Perhaps the most controversial was the announcement that all convicted sex offenders will be named and shamed with their addresses published online.

The latest comes in the form of an announcement from the government's Information Minister that a new kind of 'safety watch' will be distributed later in the year with the aim of reducing violence against women. The watch can send text alerts to local police and family members if the wearer is in danger, and can record video footage for up to 30 minutes. The government noted in a subsequent press release that the device would be timely given “unfortunate incidents of crimes against women in particular.”

The idea is to make women feel safer on the streets by having a personal alarm system attached to their wrists. However, the idea has been met with scepticism from women's safety campaigners who argue that without a strong support network in place, an alert system is a redundant technology. Preethi Herman, Campaign Director at change.org in India, said: "Sensitisation of police on violence against women, broader police reforms, effectively functioning help centres are desperate fixes that need to be made before any technology can be successful."

In fact, the watch may do more harm than good if the wearer relies on it as a safety mechanism. As Preethi says, "the watch might, at the most, provide a not entirely realistic perception of security to users." Its into Indian society assumes there is a ready and waiting police force nearby, poised to jump into action at the first bleep of an incoming SMS alert. The reality may not be so heartening. Women's safety campaigners in India have reported that the police can be obstructive when a woman tries to report a sexual attack, and that is when she visits the station in person – there is no guarantee that an alert sent remotely via mobile will be responded to quickly enough to prevent the woman coming to any harm. 

In a TrustLaw survey taken with 370 gender experts last year India was found to be the worst country to be a woman. This worrying finding, along with the increased media attention that recent attacks have attracted, is spurring the government into action. However, without focusing on underlying gender equality issues ingrained into society the introduction of safety technology may be seen as little more than a gimmicky attempt to appease an angry electorate.

Photograp: Getty Images
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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