The government of India has announced new rules for mobile phone manufacturers that are designed to improve the safety of women.
According to the Ministry of Communications and Technology every mobile phone sold in India from 2017 onward must include a panic button. Holding down the 5 or 9 button will activate an emergency call on standard mobile phones, while smartphone users will need to press the power button three times in quick succession.
Panic button and GPS features to be mandatory
Alongside the mandatory panic button feature, mobile phones will also have to include GPS capabilities from 2018 onward.
“Technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women,” said India’s communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
India has a widely documented problem with sexual violence and there have been several high-profile cases of late. A 23-year-old woman died after being gang raped in Delhi in 2012, and an Uber driver was convicted of raping a female passenger in 2015.
In December the panic button scheme was approved by mobile phone manufacturers. The requirements will hit all manufacturers including giants like Apple and Samsung.
New rules to affect huge mobile phone market
India is a hugely important market for technology companies, with other a billion mobile phone users. However due to cultural issues some of the women that could benefit from such safety features may be denied access to mobile phones.
In February a number of Indian villages placed a ban on mobile phone ownership by women. Local authorities claim that “the girls don’t study properly if they have mobile phones.”
Despite some possible issues with access, the new rules have been hailed by politicians. Maneka Gandhi, the country’s Minister for Women and Child Development and panic button lobbyist, welcomed the decision.
“We finally managed to get the panic button,” Ghandi told the local press. “We have been working on it over the last two years. I spoke to the Prime Minister and he took it extremely seriously and immediately it has been done so we should give him credit for it.”
Cultural issues could limit effectiveness of scheme
While it may seem depressing that a panic button is necessary to make women in India safer, the efforts of the government ti improve safety should not be dismissed out of hand. In the wake of the fatal 2012 incident stricter rape legislation was introduced after nationwide protests.
However there were 337,922 crimes against women in 2014, including over 36,000 rapes. That represents a 9 percent increase from 2013 figures.
The data has provoked a controversial response from some public figures. Several politicians and police officials have recommended self-defense training for women, told them to “dress decently” and make sure they are home before dark. This has elicited protests from women’s rights activists.
Businesses have also started offering products apparently designed to keep women safe. Flipkart, Amazon India and Snapdeal are among the retailers offering pepper spray, batons, brass knuckles and lipstick stun guns. These products cost anywhere from 200 rupees ($3) to nearly 7,000 rupees.
Neither the panic button scheme nor the sale of defensive weapons will solve the problems at the root of India’s problems with sexual violence. While it is difficult to argue that women should have to arm themselves in order to feel safe, the panic button does at least provide an option that should bring authorities to the scene.