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
Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.