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20 January 2022

What woman would be saved by the Home Office’s new Safer Streets-funded apps?

If only the solutions to violence against women were simple enough to be found in a GPS tracking app.

By Sarah Manavis

It is remarkable that it has reached the point of cliché to list the many ways in which women actively try to protect themselves from the threat of violence, every day, even while carrying out life’s most mundane tasks. Whether it’s commuting, exercising or walking home – even in broad daylight – we all know the old tricks: keeping your keys between fingers, calling a friend, staying on busy roads, running when you can, watching your back, learning basic self-defence, remembering to scream. 

These tactics have been repeated ad nauseam in a year filled with stories of the very attacks they supposedly help prevent. Sarah Everard, kidnapped and murdered when walking home on a busy road last March; Sabina Nessa, killed when making the five-minute journey from her flat to the pub on a September evening; now Ashling Murphy, killed in the middle of the afternoon while jogging down a popular canal path in Tullamore, Ireland. There are of course countless others, as there always have been. 

These awful events have forced the topic of violence against women to the top of the news agenda, with commentators and activists pushing for more action to tackle male violence at its root, through community action work and other approaches that focus on men’s behaviour. So campaigners have rightly balked at the government’s latest response to this issue: this week, it announced it was backing a set of six new “safety” apps, putting half a million pounds from the Home Office’s Safer Streets Fund towards the initiative. 

The new technology – currently being trialled in places like Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire – provides users with a route home. If the user deviates from that path by more than 40 metres, or stops along it for more than three minutes straight, the app asks the user to confirm that they are OK. If they do not respond, the user’s listed “guardians” (their emergency contacts) would be notified, the idea being that those individuals could check on the user or call the police. Some of the apps will provide users with the ability to make “touch-activated SOS calls”; others will provide a path that helps to avoid poorly lit streets.

The problems with such “innovations” are obvious. Firstly: women are already doing all of these things. They avoid the dark, they pre-dial 999, and send their location to friends and family. A new app may streamline that process, but it’s questionable how much it would really improve it. More than that, as has been proved in the last year, precautions may not protect you: even the “safest” of actions is no guarantee of safety. Ashling Murphy, Sabrina Nessa and Sarah Everard weren’t killed in the middle of the night, walking through dangerous paths far from home. These apps aims to solve the problem of environment, when environment, ultimately, is not the problem. And, as Megan Nolan wrote for the New Statesman in October: “I don’t want to live in a world where young girls only hear that to be an adult woman is to be too frightened to go out on your own after dark.”

So are we meant to believe this is a government trying to help us? Or is it more likely that this is a government trying to look like it is? These apps, though slightly more thoughtful, will impact sexual violence statistics as little as any other women’s safety inventions: pepper spray, anti-rape underwear and straws that tell you if your drink has been spiked. And while half a million pounds can seriously address few problems, that money could still be better spent on community work and real safeguarding for women – or, really, anything focused on changing the habits of men, rather than increasing the number of “precautions” available to women.

I wish the solutions to violence against women were simple enough to be found in a GPS tracking app. But if they were, would we not have solved the problem a long time ago? This technology would not have saved Sarah Everard, Sabrina Nessa or Ashling Murphy. It’s hard to imagine that it will save anyone else.

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