April 28, 2023 - Comments Off on Women Safety Apps: Are Those Really Effective?
Author: Tehreem Azeem
Violence against girls and women is a global problem that goes beyond national boundaries. One of the most pervasive forms of this violence is roadside harassment, which affects girls and women worldwide. Roadside harassment of women is a serious issue in Pakistan. Women in Pakistan often face street harassment, including catcalling, verbal abuse, stalking, and physical assault, while traveling on public transportation or walking on the streets.
Pakistan is now embracing technology to provide women with a solution to seek police assistance through smartphones application specifically designed to provide them assistance in cases of emergencies.
Launching the Women’s Safety Apps
In November 2009, the Punjab Police, with the assistance of the Punjab Safe City Authority, launched the Punjab Police Women Safety App, making them the first police force to do so.
The application has two alert buttons: one for dialing Punjab police helpline 15, and the other for national helpline 911. The app also includes a live chat feature and contact numbers for rescue services, the Punjab Highway Patrol, the Motorway Police, the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, and the Cyber Crime Helpline.
The app allows women to review and rate the safety of a particular location, based on reviews submitted by other women. Users can categorize locations as secure, partially secure, or not secure. The application also features awareness documents regarding laws that protect women, in both Urdu and English. The app requires the users to enter their highly personal information, including phone numbers, location access, and NIC numbers.
In June 2018, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Technology Board launched the Safe Women app to ensure the safety of women during their daily commutes. The app connects women to their friends, family, local security, and rescue authorities via the first women-only Pink Buses, which were introduced in Abbottabad and Mardan, with financial support from the Japanese Government and technical support from United Nations Women.
In January 2020, the app was upgraded with new features that allow girls and women to share their live location with trusted contacts, give distress signals to family and friends, call police emergency numbers, rate the safety level of a location, and check the live location of the buses.
In April 2022, the Balochistan Police launched the Balochistan Women Safety App in collaboration with the Punjab Safe City Authority and recently the Punjab caretaker government has recently announced the launch of another safety app called "Meri Awaz" for women’s safety.
Dr Farrah Ahmed who is a lecturer at department of sociology in Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad is of the opinion that women safety apps can be effective in preventing gender-based crimes.
"Yes these apps are effective. As sociologists we believe that you cannot revolutionize the system. Whenever you want to change the system it is possible only through reformative action. The best way to do this is to make laws and implement them. So, any change that is tried to be brought about by law in the system, in the structure or in the society is always very useful. And we sociologists always favor it," she said.
However, she further said that the effectiveness of these laws and helplines is weakened when they are not implemented properly.
The collection of user information is a crucial component of the app's alerting feature. The app requires access to a significant amount of user data, including GPS and network-based location, phone numbers, phone contacts, media files, and device storage information. Non-profits like Digital Rights Foundations have raised their concerns on the data protection policy of the app.
"Although the call is being recorded and the woman's information will be asked, there is a possibility that the victim may hesitate to share her personal details with the police. She might fear retaliation or public shaming, as many women are discouraged from speaking up about gender-based violence,” she said. “They may feel that it is easier to ignore the incident and move on, as reporting it could potentially discredit them. This is why creating a safe and non-judgmental environment for women to come forward and seek help is crucial in preventing and addressing gender-based crimes," Dr Ahmed added.
Right Approach But Not Inclusive
Farhat Hayat who is working as an Assistant professor in a graduate college in Dera Ghazi Khan. Farhat said that overall we are not a tech-oriented society. That is the main challenge in the acceptance of these apps. He further said that these apps have created a divide between urban and rural women.
He said these apps were designed primarily for the urban population with access to smartphones and the internet. Farhat added that rural women, who make up half of Pakistan's female population, have been completely ignored in the development of these apps. He notes that rural women face just as much risk as urban women, yet they lack the same resources, such as cell phones and internet access.
"We cannot ignore the harsh realities faced by rural women in Pakistan. They make half of the female population of Pakistan. They work in fields, factories, and homes. They are at equal risk of harassment,” he said. “It is necessary to address the challenges faced by rural women when devising solutions, instead of solely focusing on the urban privileged," he said.
Dr. Ahmed raised the same issue. She said it is also essential to address the issue of harassment and abuse of women of all ages, not just those who have access to smartphones and these apps.
"Girls and women of the same age are harassed. Six-year-old Zainab did not have a smartphone. Even a sixty-five-year-old woman will not know this app. But harassment and abuse are happening to girls and women of all ages. Why have they been ignored?"
In Pakistan, a significant portion of the female population is still facing restrictions when it comes to accessing mobile phones, even if they are pursuing higher education. According to the GSMA annual report of 2021, only half of women in the country own a mobile phone, compared to a significantly higher percentage of men at 81%. Furthermore, out of the women who do own mobile phones, a mere 20% possess smartphones. This gender gap is further exacerbated when it comes to mobile internet usage, with women being 49% less likely than men to use it.
Hayat further said that political instability and security issues in Pakistan, such as the frequent shutdown of cellular services during religious events or political gatherings, make it difficult for women to seek help through these apps.
“In the wake of Ashura, mobile services are shut down, leaving many women without the ability to contact authorities via the app if they encounter any issues traveling to congregations. This practice of disabling mobile phone signals during sensitive occasions, whether it be a cricket match or political rally, has become customary, but raises concerns for the safety of women,” he said. “In some parts of the country, cellular and internet service is unavailable, including stretches of the motorway, leaving women in precarious situations should an accident occur. What will those women do?" He asked.
Limited Awareness Campaigns
Punjab Safe City Authority has run several awareness campaigns about the app on their social media, and public spaces, along with a tutorial video for users to understand its use. Despite these efforts not many girls and women know about the app.
Fayeza Yahya, a lecturer at a private university in Karachi, is one of them. She had never heard of these apps when I inquired her about it. While Sindh has not yet introduced its own application for the safety of women, Yahya was unaware that other provinces had such apps.
“I commute daily to and from my university on my own car. At some points, mobile signals do not work. So even if we have an app, it won't help us,” Yahya said. “I am a qualified professor in a university who has her own car. I remain active on the internet to know about things happening around me. If I don’t know that such apps exist, then imagine a woman who is not as liberated as I am. Would she have any information about these apps,” She added.
Despite her own security measures, Yahya still feels vulnerable while traveling alone. She said that she tries to avoid deserted roads and keeps someone with her when traveling through unsafe areas. Yahya also relies on reciting verses and praying for her safety during her commute.
Dr Ahmed said that It is important to create awareness among women and the general public, especially at the grassroots level.
"For this, law enforcement agencies and police have to create more awareness programs so that more and more women know about these apps. There is a great need to communicate this information to the common people, especially at the grass root level,” she said. "It is important to convey this information not only to women but also to a common man. How do they respond if they are witnessing such an incident? Is there an app for them too, through which they can immediately call the police after seeing such an incident happening around them," she added.
It Is Basically Your Luck
On 31 March 2023, police in Lahore arrested a harasser with the help of women safety app. The suspect tried to force the girl to sit on his bike at a bus stop. She first ignored, but as he continued pressurizing her, she called the police using the live chat feature of the Punjab Police Women Safety App. A police team reached the location within a few minutes and arrested the harasser.
She was lucky enough to seek help at the moment but it does not happen with everyone.
Thirty-five-year-old Nida Ali used Punjab Police Women Safety App once. A year ago she went shopping all by herself in a famous local market of Lahore. She decided to have lunch at a nearby restaurant. As she was walking towards it, she felt a man following her on a bike.
“He passed through me, offered me to sit behind him and then stopped his bike a few meters ahead, thinking I would just go and sit there. I went to the other side of the road and kept walking ahead. He again passed through me and said come, sit. I yelled at him. He smiled and again stopped his bike a few meters ahead of me. I had the app installed on my phone. I pulled my phone out of my purse, opened the app and dialed the emergency number,” she told.
The man seeing her speaking on the phone with the police fled the scene. The police asked her the location but the man had gone. She did not know if he would come back or not. She just wanted to leave from there. She was scared. She just hanged the phone, called a ride-hailing taxi and went home.
She did not use the app afterwards. She says these incidents happen so sudden that one just gets into a frozen state.
“How in that situation one could even think of the app? Harassers are smart. They do not want to be caught. They always harass women on deserted roads so no one can catch them. It is a dangerous situation. They can touch you physically. They can snatch your phone. They can do anything. It has happened to so many women. It can happen to any of us anytime. We need more effective solutions to tackle roadside harassment,” she said.
Twenty-eight-year-old Fizza Rashid, who often goes out with her two-year-old son for grocery says that she would never rely on these apps.
She says that harassment has been normalized in society, and women are often left to deal with it on their own. She believes that seeking help only makes things more difficult for them.
"I do not see any benefit of safe city project as a woman. They are monitoring the cities but they never came to rescue us when we are in danger. I dont think these kind of apps will make any difference," she added.
She shared an incident where she was groped in a market. Despite the offender being caught, no one came forward to support her. She took matters into her own hands and slapped the offender twice on his face, causing him to run away.
“How this app would have helped me in that scenario. Would the guy stay there till the police arrives? Even the people around us did not come forward to catch him. He just ran away. This is how it happens,” she said
Dr. Ahmed while explaining this phenomenon said that it is also important to address the limitations of these apps, such as the fact that the victim may not always be in a position to respond immediately, and the police may take time to reach the scene.
"The harassers are usually fearless. They don't give up very easily. The women will use the app once, twice, thrice then what? Will the police show any way to this woman for further legal action? Will the woman be reassured that the police have not just chased him away but have arrested him for committing a crime or atleast have punished him," she said.
Bugs And Glitches In The App
The Punjab Police Women Safety App has proven to be popular among users, with over 100K downloads and an impressive rating of 4.9 on the Google Play Store. However, some users have raised concerns about the app's functionality. Many reviewers have expressed frustration about the app's reliance on internet connectivity, which makes it difficult to use in emergency situations. The safe city authority has advised such users to call the police emergency helpline instead.
Some of the reviewers have also reported bugs in the app, such as issues with receiving OTP, incorrect location tracking, and random crashes. Even the live chat feature appears to be problematic, as it shuts down the app as soon as the user enters a message. It is worth noting that the app was last updated in August 2022 on the Google Play Store. The same is with the Apple Store app.
On the other hand, the Balochistan Women Safety App, although having been downloaded over 500 times, has not received any reviews on the Google Play Store. It was last updated in April 2022.
Smartphone applications require regular updates to fix bugs or glitches and provide a better user experience. Regular updates are necessary to address security vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit, thus ensuring that the app remains secure and protects users' data. These updates also ensure compatibility with the latest operating systems, devices, and software. Safety apps, in particular, require regular updates to add new features and enhancements that make it easier for girls and women to use.
What is the solution?
Dr. Ahmed suggests that raising awareness about these apps among both men and women.
"For effective utilization of these apps and helplines, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies and the police take the responsibility to create awareness programs that target women of all ages. These programs should be conducted in various educational institutions, such as girls' colleges, and should be promoted through multiple channels such as newspapers, radio, and cable TV,” she said. “The dissemination of information about these apps and helplines should reach the common people, especially those at the grassroots level, who are often the most vulnerable. It is worth noting that even domestic helpers are aware of emergency numbers like 15 and 1122, hence it is crucial to spread awareness about these apps and helplines with the same level of urgency."
She also said that there is a need to increase the number of women in the police force, are essential steps towards finding a solution. Having female police officers on the scene can provide a more comforting and understanding presence for victims, but the most critical aspect is taking measures to protect the victim. By including more women in law enforcement, the powerful concept of women in society can emerge, contributing to a safer and more supportive environment for all.
Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine