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India: An App to Fight Violence Against Women

Publication Date: 
November 8, 2011

NEW DELHI — For many women who live here, the list of Delhi’s “100 Most Unsafe Places,” recently compiled by Whypoll, a citizens’ networking group, resonates with unpleasant associations.

Dhaula Kuan, the neighborhood at the top of the rankings, is where, in 2010, a young call-center employee returning home from work was abducted and raped by a group of men in a car. In second place is Nelson Mandela Marg, the street where Sowmya Viswanathan, a journalist, was robbed, shot and killed by four men in 2009.

The Ghitorni Metro Station is where, earlier this year, a woman was dragged out of her relatives’ car and abducted by five men in another car after an argument between the two groups.

When the government’s National Crime Records Bureau released its 2010 crime statistics last month, few were surprised that, once again, Delhi ranked first in India for reported rapes. A heavy incidence of other crimes, like abductions and dowry-related murders, reinforces the widespread belief that the Indian capital can be hazardous for the average woman.

Now, Whypoll, which was founded in 2008 by two journalists, Hindol Sengupta and Shweta Punj, is taking action. Having mapped out Delhi’s most dangerous sites from reports supplied by more than 50,000 citizens who shared women’s experiences of harassment or violence, this month Whypoll is releasing India’s first women’s emergency mobile phone app. The FightBack app aims to give women the ability to report crimes and call for help across a variety of platforms, using social networks like Twitter and Facebook, as well as Whypoll’s own site.

“We both grew up in Delhi,” said Ms. Punj, “and violence against women is such an obvious, such a glaring problem. We felt there had to be a way to address the concerns of women better.”

It took a year to develop the FightBack app, which aims to address what many believe to be chronic under-reporting of crimes in the capital. For example, the National Commission for Women, a government agency, has recorded 526 complaints of harassment by women from Delhi so far this year that were not reported to the police, and it noted that complaints of police apathy were common.

The Delhi Police Department has a dedicated Crimes Against Women section, which was set up in 1983, in response to the lack of training among personnel in handling crimes against women, as the former joint commissioner of the police, Kanwaljeet Deol, wrote.

“The sensitiveness of the average police officer when dealing with a harassed and frightened woman left much to be desired,” Ms. Deol wrote in a paper assessing general police conduct in 2005. Six years later, the special section seems to have made a difference, but many women remain reluctant to go to a police station, out of fear of the police or family pressure not to report crimes.

This is where FightBack hopes to make a difference.

“There is an absence of concrete data on crimes against women,” said Mr. Sengupta, who believes that the availability of more information — about the nature of the violence women face and the locations where they are most likely to encounter it — is crucial to changing the situation.

In its first year, the FightBack app will be a paid download, affordable at less than 100 rupees, or about $2, and will be in English, before being rolled out in Hindi and other Indian languages.

“We thought about giving it away for free,” said Ms. Punj. “But 100 rupees is a very small one-time fee, and Indians rarely respect free handouts. People will take it more seriously if they have to make a small investment.”

The FightBack app, currently being tested by small groups of users, allows women to report harassment or violence at different levels, whether lewd comments or physical assaults. The user can program up to five telephone numbers to whom a text message with GPS information will be sent in case of emergency.

“We include the Delhi Police Helpline number as one of the possible numbers women might want to use on their short list,” said Mr. Sengupta, “and we are very interested in seeing how many women will choose this option.”

The idea of using crowdsourcing to tackle violence against women is gaining ground, in and outside India. Ms. Punj said that the Whypoll team was inspired by HarassMap in Egypt, which was started by Rebecca Chiao, a women’s rights advocate who began working on a better way to report violence against women in 2008. In that year, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights released findings of a study that 83 percent of Egyptian women had experienced sexual harassment. Like FightBack, HarassMap allows users to report street and sexual harassment across a variety of platforms, from text messages to Twitter to direct reports to its Web site.

In Liberia, Ushahidi, (which means “testimony” in Swahili), is often cited as an example of how to use the Internet to report and map violence. In Haiti, the Ayiti SMS SOS project encouraged people to report human rights abuses and received many reports of violence against women, giving activists a better understanding of sexual violence in camps for people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake.

“FightBack is not a complete solution,” Mr. Sengupta said. “It won’t solve the problem of violence against women per se. But what we’re hoping for is that it will give us a clearer picture of the scope of the problem, and that it will give women — and bystanders, and ordinary citizens — a way to get involved.”

“If it works,” said Ms. Punj, “we’d like to work on an app that might tackle domestic violence next.”

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