Like many women, I walk home at night with my keys through my knuckles. I routinely end goodbyes to friends with the words, ‘text me to let me know you got home safe’. I constantly weigh up what’s better – keeping my phone in my hand so I can quickly call for help, or keeping it in my bag lest it attract a mugger (but then how do I Instagram my dinner?).
On the one hand, more technological effort being put into women’s safety can’t be a bad thing. As well as the immediate and very real potential to save lives, it means more thought, time and effort are also being put into women’s safety – which can only be positive progress in the battle to have violence against women taken seriously.
But at the same time, there’s the sigh. The internal eye-roll. The feeling that really, making do with these modern equivalents of pepper spray and knuckle-keys while waiting for a vague sense of ‘raised awareness’ to combat the actual root of the problem just isn’t enough. For every tech startup striving to help women in their most desperate moments, I want to know that there are also people working out how to stop the moments happening in the first place – and preferably faster, without a Kickstarter campaign.
Make no mistake, that’s not to say the wearables aren’t doing important work for important reasons. Safelet, a personal security bracelet currently in development, was invented after Dutch tech boss Herman Veenstra read news coverage about Jyoti Singh Pandey’s gang rape on a bus in New Delhi, in December 2012.
Using a low-energy Bluetooth connection, Safelet lets the wearer alert a ‘guardian network’ of friends, family, the police or other volunteers, using two buttons either side of the device. A microphone will record what’s going on, and the bracelet also transmits the user’s whereabouts to their network; an important development in places where geolocation isn’t permitted by the emergency services. Clever stuff – though admittedly it’s hard to ignore the voice asking ‘yes, and how many women can afford $129 safety bracelets?’.
It’s also hard not to feel a little bit depressed reading through the FAQs for Artemis, the US smart jewellery brand developed to target street crime and harassment. Worn inside bracelets and necklaces, their hidden devices are apparently ‘useful for feeling safer when walking down dark streets, walking to your car, taking public transit, or walking through bad areas of town,’ and while they concede that their technology is reactionary rather than preventative, they like to think of Artemis as ‘a tool for personal empowerment’. The company also advises women still carry pepper spray for an extra layer of protection.
Perhaps more empowering is Roar, another wearable start-up currently looking for crowdfunding (and yes, named after the Katy Perry song), works more like a high-spec rape alarm, by emitting a high-pitched noise and powerful flashing light to deter attackers and buy the victim precious time to escape. A text message is also sent to pre-programmed contacts to let them know the wearer is in trouble, and an emergency call triggered to 911 – but the real point of difference is Roar’s ‘one-to-one’ model, supplying developing countries in which sexual assaults are higher.
‘For each accessory purchased, one is donated to a woman in need,’ says creator Yasmine Mustafa. ‘In addition to addressing ‘symptoms’ of the epidemic, we’re taking a long-term strategy to alter society’s viewpoint on women’s safety by partnering with existing organisations to educate, mentor and create a culture of respect for everyone.’
And it’s exactly this awareness of the causes of violence that’s so important. We need a nod to education and human responsibility in every conversation about security wearables – otherwise personal safety technology can feel like a newer, shinier sticking plaster on a pretty old wound. Without humanity signed up to the cause, technology will evolve much faster than attitudes.
After all, the success of wearables still hinges so much on the humans at the other end of your alert. Not all vulnerable people will have a team of friends waiting to leap to their aid, and not all vulnerable people will have the confidence to raise an alarm – particularly when culture still so readily blames women for their own attacks. And when we remember that 90 per cent of rape victims actually know their attacker, devices aimed at a cartoonish vision of men ‘jumping out of bushes’ are tackling only a small part of the much bigger picture, however well-intentioned they may be.
Personally I’d like to see technology developed to address the blurrier middle ground too; the kinds of harassment that many women face on a regular basis, but which, for various reasons, we don’t think justify the high drama of an alert to friends or a call to a security team.
Not wanting to be seen to ‘make a fuss’ commonly stops women speaking up about abuse, meaning many of these smaller crimes go by completely unchallenged. I don’t know exactly what kind or wearable tech might stop men groping in clubs or making unwanted advances at bus stops – but then, I’m not an inventor.
With batteries that can die and programmes that can malfunction, technology is few people’s preferred protector. And as we would all rather live in a world where nobody needs a safety alarm strapped to their wrist, surely it’s reasonable to demand the same time and effort go into teaching men not to attack as it does developing gadgets to protect us? Bystander intervention training is gaining popularity in US universities, while Take Back the Night and Reclaim the Night marches make their own noise every year, in protest against a world that still brands it daring or foolish to be a woman out alone after dark.
Meanwhile online, the ongoing crusades of @EverydaySexism and campaigns like #YesAllWomen do their bit to fill in the gaps of awareness and education that alarms and geotrackers can’t reach. It’s just a shame we can’t activate their effects at the push of a button, too.
Main image: safelet.com