In the age of the “information society”, information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet play a big role in the battle against sexual abuse and violence against women, both as tools to curb such violence, but at times also as new spaces for harassment and abuse. While ICTs and Internet can pose a risk to women and girls, they can also offer new, innovative ways to battle violence against women and to provide women and girls with more protection, more security and more independence.
The “Circle of 6” smart phone app is an example of an innovative use of technology to provide women with tools to protect themselves from sexual assault and rape. Circle of 6, released in March 2012, allows users to program six friends into a “circle”, and has pre-programmed SMS messages, such as “call and pretend you need me. I need an interruption” or “come and get me, I need help getting home safely” that can easily be sent to the people programmed into the circle. The user’s location is also sent to the circle through GPS technology, and the app has sexual assault, rape and abuse hotline numbers pre-programmed, with the user being able to add an additional one of their choice. Every action can be completed with minimal number of taps, which makes the app easier to use in an uncomfortable or threatening situation. Recently, prompted by the horrible bus rape case in Delhi, India, the app’s inventor and developers released a new version of Circle of 6 in Hindi, targeted particularly for Indian users. While it is clear that the apps platform – Android or IPhone – and it’s current availability in only English or Hindi, limit the number of people who can realistically use it, Circle of 6 is an innovative, simple and extremely useful tool for women all over the world to feel safer and more secure, knowing that the people in their circle – people they trust – are only a couple of taps away.
Circle of 6 is not the only mobile application that has been developed to offer women security and protection. In India, a similar app called “Fight Back” was developed to protect women against “eve teasing”, term used in India to describe men’s unwanted attention towards women ranging from uncomfortable and threatening staring to unwanted physical contact. Fight Back sends the user’s location via GPS to pre-programmed contacts along with an SOS message with one push of a button, and it can also be linked to Facebook. In Egypt, a technology tool called HarassMap was developed to receive anonymous reports of sexual harassment through SMS. All the reports are updated on a map in real-time, which gives a viewer an overview of where possible “harassment hotspots”and dangerous areas are located. Not only does it offer women the ability to avoid places where harassment seems to be common, but it can also provide authorities important data on areas where women’s harassment is concentrated and security measures need to be increased. Reports can be categorized as, for example, cat-calls, comments, phone calls, rape, sexual assault, stalking or touching, and users are able to add details about their experiences anonymously to the map.
Group sexual harassment by the midan hospital, an incident of rape and one incident of ripping clothes.
– Report on HarassMap from Cairo
New technologies are paving the way for creative approaches to battle violence against women and sexual abuse, and as mobile phones are becoming more and more common and available in even the most remote locations, these solutions can offer support, information, help and protection to women and girls across countries, cultures and socio-economic classes. While many of these apps are currently available only for smartphones, which limits their availability to women and girls who do not have access to smartphones or a mobile Internet connection – such as women and girls living in poverty – technology is constantly catching up with needs of women and girls across socio-economic classes, and many of these services can also support and protect women through very simple and basic SMS-services which do not require a smart phone, or even an Internet connection.
There is a strong push for these kinds of apps and tools to be developed, which also increases the likelihood of more of them becoming available to women and girls in a variety of settings, hopefully in multiple languages and for users without access to smartphones or Internet connection. Last year, the World Bank organized a “Domestic Violence hackathon” in Central America and Washington DC, during which participants were presented with a particular challenge, and asked to develop an innovative digital solution or a smartphone app using minimal resources, so that these solutions could be implemented and scaled up to make a concrete impact in the lives of women and girls. Over 350 hackers put their skills and brains into work to tackle the challenge of domestic violence through technology solutions that could offer help and support to women and girls facing violence and abuse. Some winning apps included an SMS app to alert family and friends or a girl is being taken abroad for forced marriage, hotline for information on domestic violence, and an anonymous social network online for victims of abuse and violence to come together, share experiences, reach out for help and support and access information and resources. Circle of 6 was developed as part of the White House’s “Apps Against Abuse” technology challenge, which Circle of 6 won.
While technology is by no means a silver bullet to ending violence against women, and while it is important to remember that ICTs and the Internet can also pose an additional risk to women and girls, tools such as Circle of 6, Fight Back and HarassMap can make an immense difference in the lives of women and girls who, with the help of these tools, can not only feel safer and more secure, but can also share their experiences, reach out for help and support, access counseling and legal services and talk with each other and discuss ways to battle abuse and harassment in their everyday lives. When designed properly, and when available in multiple languages, they can also break through cultural, religious and socio-economic boundaries and help women across the globe to feel more independent, and more safe. While a mobile app may not be able to liberate women and girls from violence and harassment, these tools are still a great step to the right direction. We wish to one day see a world where these kinds of tools and technologies are no longer needed, but since that world is not here quite yet, I just downloaded Circle of 6 to my phone and added my six people I love, trust, and know will come to my help whenever and wherever I am. I hope I never have to use the app, but I do know that having it on my phone does make me feel a little bit safer and more confident. That increased feeling of security and confidence alone can be life changing to thousands of women and girls all over the world.