Tech Solutions for Women's Safety: Addressing a Real Problem
A Bitter Reminder
The recent rape case in Islamabad’s F9 park was a personal shock that hit too close to home. I remember walking in the park just a few days before the incident and it's now a place that I fear going back to. The details of the incident were difficult to read for my colleagues and I as it felt like it could have happened to anyone. However, what is even more distressing is the victim-blaming and misogynistic attitudes in our society, where the female victim who bravely reported the crime faced challenges in seeking justice. The issue is further exacerbated by the presence of rape apologists in political leadership and the media censorship by PEMRA. It is disheartening to know that as a woman my safety is not a priority and I may be blamed for a crime committed against me. Given the gravitas of this situation though, it is imperative to identify solutions that may bring about a safe and just environment for all.
Public Safety Industry and Women Safety Apps
Technology has played a significant role in accelerating change around the globe. Founders are leveraging tech to find solutions to local and global challenges. This includes public safety and more specifically women's safety. According to Crunchbase, around 288 startups are operating in the Public Safety space of which 98% are for-profit. Personal Safety including women safety is a sub-sector within the wider industry. In recent years, women safety apps have grown in popularity to help protect women from sexualized violence. These apps typically offer features such as identifying dangerous areas, instant sirens, panic buttons, GPS tracking, notifying close ones in case of an emergency, and lock screen access. According to a report by Market Research Future, the market size of ‘Smart Personal Safety and Security Devices’ is around USD 8.74 Billion estimated to grow at a CAGR of 13.6% by 2030. Though this number refers to safety apps and devices for the wider population, the primary market driver is the growing crime rates witnessed against women and children, especially during COVID-19 in the form of hate crimes, violence, and assault & harassment.
Amidst these challenging circumstances, there is still an opportunity for growth and positive change. This is perfectly exemplified by the women safety apps such as bSafe, Shake2Safety, My Safetipin, Sister, Raksha, and SafeUP among others.
‘bSafe - Never Walk Alone’ stands at the pinnacle with 1M+ downloads offering freemium and premium features, including voice activation, follow me, guardians, live streaming, automatic recording, and fake call.
Another notable app is My Safetipin, developed in India with over 50K+ downloads, which uniquely provides safety audit services and encourages community engagement to develop location-based safety ratings by utilizing 9 parameters such as lighting, openness, and visibility.
A personal favorite is the startup SafeUP, launched in 2020 with over 50K downloads, advocating for the global solidarity of women. The founder's focus is on protecting women without involving the police by utilizing registered guardian networks within the community. SafeUP also offers a free basic version, along with a premium monthly subscription.
Are these apps helpful IRL?
After reading about the impressive capabilities of these apps, as a potential user, my primary concern was whether they are of any use when trouble strikes. Mixed reviews exist on app stores and the reception for each app may differ based on the services, pricing, and quality offered. It was also difficult to locate news pieces but among the clutter came success stories in the form of the Disha app and Lifeline Response (currently known as Kinetic Global). The Disha app, developed by the state government in India, has allowed the Andhara police in India to timely respond to the street and sexual harassment crimes reported by victims. Success stories shared by the Lifeline Response’s team though old still stay relevant. In both reported cases, the female who was harassed and on another occasion attacked were able to seek help by notifying the police and their loved ones.
Where do we stand?
It should come as no surprise that Pakistan is rated as the second worst country in the world for women. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2022, Pakistan ranks 145th among 146 nations in the world when it comes to gender parity, faring slightly better than Afghanistan only. According to Samaa TV's Investigation Unit (SIU), around 21,900 women were reported to have been raped in the country from 2017 to 2021. This means a woman is raped every two hours in Pakistan. Combined with the fact that less than ten percent of cases of violence against women are reported, the actual case count remains elusive. Looking at the abysmal situation, a tech-based solution is not a “good to have” but a “must have” in our country.
Pakistani views on Women Safety Apps
To give you more insight, the team and I decided to conduct a survey using random sampling to inquire about the general public’s views on Women Safety Apps. Please note that the sampling was convenience-based, so caution is recommended when reviewing the results.
Out of 79 respondents surveyed, less than 40% of people had heard about women safety apps before. An overwhelming majority of 95% believe that Women's Safety apps are a necessity in Pakistan. About half of the respondents expressed willingness to pay for such an app, with 81% of those willing to pay a monthly subscription fee of $2 or less.
It was also interesting to see feature preferences among the respondents. An overwhelming majority leaned towards emergency alert signals and real-time tracking to keep in touch with their trusted contacts and to timely inform the police. Live streaming and audio capture also came up as features when sending out a distress signal. An interesting idea was to capture an area’s density and alert other app users within a kilometer radius in case of an emergency. This is very similar to the community feature that the SafeUP app uses when mobilizing its guardian network. Additionally, safety resources and tips, such as outlining safe routes, safe ride-hailing options, a directory of harassers, and self-defense tips, were also recommended by respondents.
The responses clearly indicate a need and willingness among the general population for women safety apps. However, to be truly helpful in real-life emergency scenarios, an app must rise above the traditional options. While basic panic buttons and SOS signals are already available on most phones, (Google “How to set up an emergency SOS feature on my phone?”), the trouble is they often fail to account for extraneous variables. To go beyond the ordinary, a women safety app must address issues like internet disruption and police negligence.
To analyze scalability and survivability in this sector, we reviewed some key players in Pakistan, including; Mohafiz, Iyzil, and Punjab Police - Women Safety App. Mohafiz and Iyzil are private companies offering freemium and premium solutions while Punjab Police - Women Safety App is a state-owned and free solution.
Mohafiz is the oldest player in the public safety space, having been launched in 2015 as a response to the inhumane attack on APS Peshawar in 2014. To learn more about the company, I spoke with Ammara Qazi, who played an integral role at Humaneteck in a three-person team to launch it. Initially, Mohafiz was offered as a public service to respond to Pakistan's overarching safety and security issues. However, to ensure sustainability, two years into the launch, the company decided to expand into the B2B sector and provide premium safety solutions to generate stable revenue. Currently, the company is exploring premium options for the B2C space while keeping the basic version free.
Having closely worked in this space for 3-years, Ammara suggests that a founder must be prepared to navigate a significant amount of bureaucratic red tape to operate successfully in Pakistan. This includes challenges such as a preference for ignorance by upholders of the law and the decentralization of the justice system, particularly following the 18th amendment. In addition, being "well connected" is critical when it comes to establishing public-private partnerships.
Success is possible in her opinion, "If a founder successfully develops unique insights into the specific security preferences of the people in each province, they will be able to create a targeted support system for their users. Moreover, it may be necessary to develop B2B solutions early on to ensure a positive cash flow."
Before we conclude
Before finalizing our analysis, I had the privilege of speaking with Hera Hussain, a women's safety expert for over a decade who founded Chayn in 2013. Chayn has provided safe spaces for over half a million survivors of gender-based violence
Hera rightly pointed out that personal safety apps relying on external intervention have limited utility and create a false sense of security. Additionally, 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and they may be uncomfortable reporting it to the police. In her opinion, crowdsourcing apps like My Safetipin, which leverage community knowledge and resources, are more effective. Further, stakeholders in society must collaborate to create secure spaces instead of relying solely on panic buttons.
Hera’s experience has led her to realize that in cases of violence and abuse, justice varies for everyone, as Hera aptly put it, “The definition of justice varies from person to person. For some, it may involve healing from trauma, while for others, it could mean being able to trust their bodies or partners.”
Safety is a basic human right, and while tech-enabled solutions can help strengthen public safety, they can never replace the justice system. Furthermore, poorly thought-out personal safety apps can do more damage than good. Therefore, those who wish to enter this field should adopt a collaborative approach. They could explore the crowdsourcing model and leverage community support and resources to unlock the sector's potential. In addition, creating healing spaces and developing easy-to-access safety devices that go beyond the capabilities of a smartphone can help a business be more impactful.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s justice system has failed to tackle basic human rights violations. In our country’s broken justice system, personal safety apps, including those designed for women and powered by the community, may represent our only ray of hope.
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Have you tried any similar apps? What’s your verdict?
Interested in learning about building women safety apps? Read this