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Electric Bras and Panic Buttons Won’t Fix India’s Rape Crisis

Sex education answers the questions that technology cannot.

Nilima Achwal

Indian women offer prayers for a gang rape victim at Mahatma Gandhi memorial in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. Image: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús/Flickr

On New Year's Eve of 2016, in what is being called the largest public "mass molestation" in India, groups of men teamed up and molested thousands of women on the streets of Bangalore, India's technology hub. It was not the first time that the question of women's safety in public spaces has come up.

After the publicized gangrape of a woman in Delhi back in 2012, various solutions have been proposed for women's safety‚ given that rape is the fourth most common crime in the country. Some included better policing and death penalties for rapists. Other solutions involved a plethora of mobile apps and wearable technologies—from mobile panic buttons to the electric-shock bra that "delivers a 3800kv electric shock to any would-be rapist, enough to cause severe burns."

The vast majority of mobile apps for women's safety have two major features: to send calls or messages to a group of contacts (usually family and friends, sometimes police), and to track a woman's location by GPS. These have become so popular that even national and city governments have started releasing their own apps. The Indian government recently ruled that all mobile phones sold from 2017 must have a built-in panic button. From 2018, they must include GPS navigation systems.

But technology solutions for women's safety have low practical use—it's improbable that an alarm or GPS can prevent assault in time. At worst, they dramatically over-simplify women's experience of oppression.

The Indian government recently ruled that all mobile phones sold from 2017 must have a built-in panic button.

Violation of women does not stop and end at the relatively rare event of a lower-class strange man attempting to rape an upper class woman—it's an all-pervasive psychological experience that starts the moment a woman steps out of her home, from stares and commenting, to grabbing. And it starts before she leaves the home—98 percent of all rapes in India took place inside the home in 2012, not by strangers, but people known to the victim.

Mobile apps won't solve this problem—they will only reinforce the idea that women need to be rescued. This does little except to allow entrepreneurs and public figures to pretend to "have done something about it," and misdirect public attention and resources from solutions that actually fix the systemic issue: the attitudes of men and young boys. Even fostering women-friendly public environments (e.g. women police officers, bright lighting) will only go so far without addressing the root of the issue.

Many people believe that attitudinal and behavioral change is too difficult, or takes too long to manifest. But through my work with Iesha Learning, a social enterprise group I started to develop sex education for Indian schools, I have seen firsthand that have educating boys on consent can change their attitudes and behavior. If we explain basic concepts like sex and gender in a compassionate, friendly, taboo-free way at the right age, boys grow up healthier, happier, and more fulfilled.

A girl learns about sexual education in an Iesha Learning class. Image: Iesha Learning

In a country that has not dared to speak about sexuality since the British started imposing their Victorian-era values in the mid-1700s, this is not an easy case to make. But in order to change the gender equation in India, we need to fundamentally re-establish balance in the way we approach the problem. We need a long-term, systemic, preventative, and dare I say it—compassionate—solution. Apps will not cut it.

At Iesha we trained teachers to conduct courses on sexuality and gender that can change behaviors. We demonstrated this at a low-income Teach for India school in a tiny, crowded slum in Mumbai. We ran our 10 session course on sexuality and gender with 100 eighth grade students, boys and girls. We established a free and happy space of no taboos and no judgment, where the pre-teens could learn about puberty, sex, relationships, and love.

"Now if a girl says no, I will not feel sad, and I will not force her. I will accept it and move on."

At first, the boys, especially, were resistant. They disrupted the class out of embarrassment and deposited absurd questions into our Question Box. By the end of the course, the same boys were our most heartfelt champions.

"Didi (big sister), before, I used to think that I should get the girl at any cost, by forcing her or doing anything. But after you taught us, my mind changed completely," one student told me. "Now if a girl says no, I will not feel sad, and I will not force her. I will accept it and move on. I have started telling the other boys about consent too."

These children were so thirsty for accurate information that they started sharing everything they had learned from us—breaking myths about everything from HIV transmission, to menstruation, to pornography—with their friends and community members. The girls told us they had never felt safer in their classroom, and the teasing and bullying had gone down to almost zero.

Teaching kids about sexuality didn't unleash a whirlwind of acting out and inappropriate-question-asking, as the administrators had feared. It solved a problem that technology cannot. And with sexual violence threatening women every single day, we need to start focusing our resources on the root of the problem.

Nilima Achwal is the founder and CEO of Iesha Learning, a Mumbai-based social venture that educates pre-teens and teens on sexuality and gender.