For Women safety, Technological innovation can help, but cannot actually change people

Indian-American philanthropists Anu and Naveen Jain recently announced the launch of the Women’s Safety XPRIZE. This new edition of the XPRIZE, an international tech innovation prize, runs for 20 months and promises a very generous $1 million. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned founders pointed the conversation of technology for women once more to its dreadful true north: emergency helpline apps to prevent sexual violence.

The prize will go to a team that designs the best app that “autonomously triggers an emergency alert to a network of community responders within 90 seconds, at an annual cost of up to $40 (approximately Rs 2,672).” Zenia Tata, XPRIZE’s executive director of global expansion, told The Hindu that they imagine this technology will somehow make society abandon what she called ‘nonsense dialogue’ like, “Why did you dress like that?” or “Why were you out at 11 o’clock with a boy?”

Who is going to bell the bell-and-whistle lovers? Who’s going to tell the enthusiastic Tatas and the passionate Jains that we have plenty of apps and helplines for women in this country, and none of them work? And not because of #ThirdWorld problems such as connectivity that the XPRIZE hopes to tackle. Who’s going to tell the hapless Americans the story of the Khabar Lahariya reporters in Uttar Pradesh who were stalked for six months, and throughout turned away, mocked and insulted by senior policemen and ignored by the helplines? Is it too boring to remind the prize-givers that around the world and in India, women face the most violence at home and in familiar surroundings from people they know, not strangers in the dark? The lack of apps is very seldom what stands in our way to safety.

But even if one accepts the tiresome idea that technology will solve women’s safety issues, let’s re-examine the dangers that women face. Say, for a lark, we don’t assume safety = safety from sexual violence, and look at what’s responsible for death, disease and injuries in women. Data shows that heart disease and diarrhoea – yes, diarrhoea – are the two leading killers of Indian women. Women often die from heart attacks because the symptoms are different from those of men, and medical science has only recently figured out that detail. Or let’s take tuberculosis, another assassin of Indian women. As of 2007, over 1 lakh women suffering from tuberculosis in India were being abandoned by their families every year. Imaginative technology could help improve detection of heart attacks in women or reduce the stigma around TB that leads to lower rates of diagnosis and treatment in Indian women.

If we want to stay with safety and our lady parts, in India 45,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes every year, contributing to 15 percent of the world’s maternal mortality. Surely some technological innovation could help us there.

And while we are looking away from rape, for a lark, let’s look at the fearsome streets. 1.46 lakh people were killed in road accidents in India in 2015. Last year, at a meeting to discuss feminist considerations of technology in Bangalore. we all bored each other about women’s safety apps for a bit. When the discussion thankfully broadened, many participants bemoaned the athletic feat required to climb on the back of motorbikes (“Why don’t they realise we are a nation of short women!”) and the (thankfully decreasing) social pressure to sit sideways with our knees together, one genteel hand on the driver’s shoulder and our terrified hearts in our mouths.

It’s often hard to remember technology doesn’t mean shiny glass and high-speed Internet connections. But even when simple, cheap, technology exists for women’s safety, it’s often overruled by social considerations. Women two-wheeler drivers across India are encouraged to cover their faces and hands to stay fair, keep their hair neat and, of course, drive home early because of prowling Bad Men. But not to wear helmets to protect their heads. (On a holiday in Goa recently, the friendly men at the scooter rental told me “Aapko helmet ki zaroorat nahin hain,” implying that the police won’t stop me. “Jab gir jaaongi tab zaroorat hogi,” I replied, and they laughed and gave me a red helmet.)

In a fascinating essay about the future as seen through the prism of high-tech model kitchens, Rose Eveleth notes that, “In Ikea’s future kitchen, the promotional image they use is a woman alone in the kitchen. In Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision we see a woman pour herself a smoothie. In 2011, glass and ceramics manufacturer Corning released a series of videos called A Day Made of Glass, easy to read as a modern take on the Monsanto house of tomorrow. The wife in Corning’s future grabs an apple on her way out to work, but we never see what she does (although we do catch up with her again later, while she’s shopping). The husband is a brain surgeon.”

The same essay remarks on the unsurprising tendency of futurists and technologists (largely men) to fall into the trap of designing yet another grocery tracking app (clearly the rape helpline app of the futuristic household world) instead of any tech that eases cleaning or stirring, for instance.

Closer home, there is also a big fight on about the future of Indian kitchens. The government has rolled out a plan to issue 5 crore LPG connections by 2019 to provide modern, smokeless kitchens to rural women. However, the Federation of LPG distributors has threatened to strike work since this target is unfeasible given that its safety measures are routinely ignored, people die in gas leaks, and cylinder technology remains unsafe. The distributors have called off their proposed strike for now in light of demonetisation troubles, but tech innovation prize-givers should note that just last week, a truck carrying 50 cylinders in Uttar Pradesh caught fire when cylinders leaked. They might also read the IndiaSpend report that finds that between 2010 and 2014, exploding cooking gas cylinders and stoves were responsible for 19,491 deaths – nearly one-sixth of all accidental fire deaths in India.

Following the 2014 Badaun rape-murders, Sopan Joshi, author of Jal, Thal, Mal, a new book on sanitation, wrote, “A matter of violence against a weaker caste and women has, instead, became a story about infrastructure. Which amounts to the same as saying that the 2012 December 16 Delhi gangrape was actually a public transport issue. Or that the crime could have been prevented if the victim had only stayed at home, or only had a private car. Our cities desperately need affordable public transport, more so for women than men. But will that stop violence against women? Are toilets the answer to caste violence? Isn’t that another mode of denial?”

The separation of technology from culture means that innovation is also imagined outside the culture that will use it. Sometimes in India, this separation is so literal because studying engineering means safety from the danger of ever cracking open a book of literature, history, sociology or politics.

The platonic ideal of an app for women’s safety that is simultaneously divorced from women’s reality has actually already been achieved – in 2013, three IIT women made the ‘Society Harnessing Equipment’ (oh engineering, the harm and acronyms you do), a bra that responds to groping by giving the groper electric shocks and sending SMSs to a police station.

If your life is like math and science tuition, then no one can blame you for thinking the world is app-shaped.

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