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

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

Photograp: Getty Images

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.