Panic buttons: A great metaphor for how we deal with sexual violence in India

By Madhura Kadaba, The Ladies Finger

A couple of weeks ago, Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted about new rules mandating a panic button on every cell phone sold in the country from January 2017.  To keep women safe, of course.

According to a statement released by the Telecommunications Ministry, the panic button will be activated by pressing a designated button on a smartphone or by holding down both ‘5’ and ‘9’ keys on a basic phone. Pressing the panic button is expected to alert police and designated friends or relatives, similar to apps launched previously by police departments like Himmat.

It followed remarks from Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, in the Lok Sabha in December 2015. "Every cell phone will have an in-built panic button. Now, all new cell phones will be made with panic buttons. But in case of all old cell phones, you can go to the person who owns the company or the dealer and they will adjust it for you. If a woman is in trouble, she can just press the button on the cell phone and she will immediately get help.''

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Two days later, reacting to concerns that the mandate could increase mobile phone costs, Prasad said, “Manufacturers… have given their support. My expectation is that they will render their support in social justice and women security."

After a point, it almost becomes a farce — the government’s continuous search for grand, one-stop solutions to dealing with sexual violence. We had the vast coffers of the Nirbhaya fund, which went nowhere. It had tech solutions coming out of its 1,000-crore ears. It included plans for setting up control rooms in 114 cities within nine months back in 2014 and surveillance cameras in all public transport vehicles including auto rickshaws!

Who was going to be watching the feed of these cameras, if ever by some vast change in the face of humanity such a thing happened, you may wonder?

Or as journalist Revati Laul wrote, “Given that police stations across the country are short staffed, given how many of them cannot even afford paper to file a first information report (FIR) or fuel for the police personnel's motorbike, just how will the appearance of these control rooms change that? How will switchboards help if police stations in even big cities like Varanasi have too few vehicles to cater to the existing load of emergencies they have to deal with?” But hush, don’t interrupt when Daddy is talking.

Recently, we published an investigation into the one-stop centres promised by the Nirbhaya fund. These centres are supposed to provide services like assistance in lodging FIRs, medical assistance for medical examinations, and therapy. On paper, Delhi is supposed to have six. Good luck locating them because they don’t exist. Most of the staff of the hospitals where the centres were to be located, were clueless about the programme.

But perhaps we should forget the tiresome past and move to the shiny button-filled future.

We asked Rohini Lakshane, a technology expert and programme officer at the Centre for Internet and Society what she thought of panic buttons. Recently, she reviewed a bunch of personal safety apps geared toward women and was very unimpressed. About the government’s new plan, she said, “GPS accuracy in India can be patchy and not very accurate, and location tracking can drain the battery.” Lakshane added, “The app will also enable tracking by family members, which can increase the chance of intimate partner abuse and violence.” In short, you are unlikely to get the help you need in case of stranger danger and continue to face whatever oppression you maybe facing from your ‘loved ones’.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with panic buttons — the idea that what Indian women should live in fear of scary strangers outside the house.

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In fact, carefully conducted research shows over and over again that Indian women are most likely to face violence from their families, within their homes. The Mumbai NGO Raahat’s report shows that 91 percent of the accused in reported cases of rape were by known persons. Add on the fact if you have even a fleeting acquaintance with a man who attacks you, the police is additionally reluctant to do anything.

Not that the police likes to file complaints if you have been raped by a stranger. Cops, that way, are quite equal opportunity about ignoring complaints.

Perhaps we should have a panic button on our phones after all. A daily reminder that you should fear rape, in case for a moment you had decided to stop worrying. A daily reminder that if you do get raped, you must remember to press a button that goes nowhere.

A great metaphor for how we deal with victims of sexual violence in India.

The Ladies Finger is an online women’s magazine


Published Date: May 14, 2016 12:39 pm | Updated Date: May 18, 2016 11:47 am



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