Can a safety app protect women?

December 6, 2020

A women’s safety app in Punjab, provides the benefit of an emergency option. But, curbing misogynistic attitudes is where the solution really lies

Walking on the street alone, she is nervous and alert. She looks right and left and behind her for prying eyes, or worse, hands. She has to catch the first available cab and she would be safer, at least that’s what she hopes.

As dramatic as this may sound, the situation may be quite familiar to young female commuters in Pakistan. Even in metropolises like Karachi and Lahore where women are arguably a more prominent part of public life.

“I travel by bike for my daily commute,” says Saeeda, a young veterinary doctor in Lahore.

“When I travel [by bike] wearing regular ‘women’s clothes’, people keep staring, some people laugh, so I usually wear a riding jacket with trousers and a tinted helmet so people may think I’m a man.”

Saeeda makes an interesting observation.

“I usually face this issue [of street harassment] only in Lahore and the Punjab. I’ve travelled across northern Pakistan and people there are very friendly and supportive [towards female tourists].”

Two months ago, Samar Khan, a woman cyclist from Hunza who promotes women’s sports and cycles to Lahore, reported that she was fondled by an unknown person, whilst she was cycling in Islamabad, the federal capital.

A day earlier, the motorway gang rape incident near Lahore had sent shockwaves throughout the country. A woman was robbed as well as raped in front of her children. And yet, it was she who was censured by conservative elements including some public office holders for considering the roads safe for travelling without an adult male escort. She had been trying to contact helplines for over two hours and not getting any assistance.

The incident has prompted the launch of the Women Safety App last month by the Punjab Police. The Punjab Police Women Safety App can be downloaded and used on all Android mobile phones. Women can get themselves registered and get help from Emergency Helpline 15, Rescue 1122, Highway Police, and Motorway Police in case of an emergency with a click. The key features of the app include a panic/ emergency response button and awareness literature about rights of women and anti-harassment laws.

Following the trend, police in Islamabad also recently launched a mobile app, developed by the National Information Technology Board (NITB), to help women identify and trace harassers and report incidents of harassment.

But is this an innovation in Pakistan?

The Guardian reports in 2017 the launch of a smartphone application in Pakistan’s Punjab province, enabling women to report incidents of harassment.

“Though the app primarily covers street harassment, it also has a feature for a woman who is inside her house and is suffering physical violence to call for help,” Fauzia Viqar, the then chair of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, had said.

Earlier this year, Khyber-Pakthunkhwa (KP) launched a website and mobile application allowing abuse against women, children and transgender persons to be reported.

Worse, if her phone is snatched, what means does she have to call for help? What are the guarantees, that each incident reported is promptly responded by law enforcement agencies?

The Express Tribune reported that the app ‘launched’ recently by the Punjab Safe City Authority (PSCA) had already been released in February 2019 and was downloaded over 1,000 times during the period. In other words, the same app was repackaged and presented again.

It can be inferred from this that there is a lack of awareness in the society about the fact that a locally managed application is available. For those who have heard about it for the first time, how effective do they think this app can be?

“It’s a start”, “Let’s wait and watch” are some responses from women that this scribe interviewed. With a 4.6/5 rating on Google Play Store, users have been praising the effort, which is an improvement considering the complaints of bugs at the time it was launched earlier.

“App [sic] is running smoothly. It is a great initiative. Punjab Police Women Safety App team is very competent and they‘re improving the app everyday”, reads Mahnur’s review at the Play Store.

Others remain apprehensive.

“What if the Punjab Police Personnel also harass women? They too are part of this society”, asks Saeeda.

Also, practically speaking, there is only so much that an app can do. A woman facing harassment, in a place where there are a number of people present, like a restaurant or a public space, may manage to raise an alarm using the app. But, alone and suddenly attacked, she may not find a moment to tap a button. Worse, if her phone is snatched, what means does she have to call for help? What are the guarantees, that each incident reported is promptly responded by law enforcement agencies? Given Pakistan’s gaping, gendered digital divide, even uniform access to the app will be a challenge that needs to be considered.

Keeping aside these practical situations, even if we consider the app’s viability in terms of at least an option available, there may be more measures which need to be taken simultaneously.

“There are already laws for prevention of harassment they should be implemented well. Also, we need more women police officers on the streets,” says Saeeda.

Women safety apps are a regular feature worldwide. Neighbouring India quite similarly had many campaigns and launches of various apps. But, the increased frequency of the launch of these applications is in response to the rise in reported cases of women harassment. While use of technology can be an effective means in helping facilitate redressal and access to justice, the real problem is unmitigated. If the male members of the society are not socialised into treating women as equals, with the rights and dignities accorded to them by the Constitution of Pakistan, the problem remains. Curbing misogynistic and violent attitudes towards women is what will have a direct impact on making their lives safer.

As Saeeda says, “We should start teaching boys from a very young age that they should respect women. They should also learn about consent.”


The author is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. She has keen interest in and writes on issues related to women, religion, history and society. She can be reached at [email protected]

Can a safety app protect women?