10th October 2020

By Asra Haque


LAHORE

With the debate surrounding sexual violence and the need for better protection mechanisms for women, following the Lahore-Sialkot motorway gang-rape incident in early September gaining momentum, the government has decided to explore digital solutions to these concerns. On 5 October, the National Information Technology Board (NITB) added the option to report harassment on the e-Police portal of the City Islamabad app.

In order to make a complaint, users must first register on the app and login; although they can also access the app as guest users, they cannot submit any complaints unless they have registered. The harassment service appears in the e-Police section and contains a brief complaint form, in which users can select a police station and provide details of the incident, including where it took place and when. They can also view their report history as well as any progress on their case.

The harassment reporting service is fast, requiring only a few taps to submit a complaint rather than physically visiting a police station; it is also safer for women to use, given that many often feel unwelcome and apprehensive at police stations. However, since it is a relatively new feature, it is difficult to gauge how many complaints the service has received, whether those complaints were registered, and if any action was taken by the Islamabad police against any accused.

Although the app is meant to give women easier access to justice and protection, only a certain class of Pakistani women – those with smartphones and an understanding of how apps operate, and who read and write English (since the primary language of the app is English) – can make use of its harassment service.

The Sindh police has also announced the launch of an app as well as a web portal to counter rights violations of vulnerable groups, especially women and children. The app will be an extension of the Sindh Police Women’s Protection Cell and is due to be launched sometime next week.

Nuzhat Shirin, chairperson of the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW), was also among the participants at a video-link meeting with the Sindh police chief where the launch of the app was announced. She lauded the idea, but observed that it may as well be a cosmetic solution to the problem.

“It is a good attempt to modernize things and collect data, but how will women living in rural areas, villages and slums access these apps?” she questioned. “We want to empower women. We want to make sure their voices are heard. But how can they speak up [about the harassment they face] when most women do not even have smartphones?”

The app, Shirin felt, was a step that should have come after addressing key concerns in the existing justice system and the ground realities surrounding women’s protection, which state institutions have yet to tackle.

“First and foremost, there is a need to make police stations women-friendly spaces. Then, police personnel must be sensitized to handle cases of domestic violence, harassment and sexual assault. Very few women even bother reporting crimes because of the very low rate of conviction in gender-based crimes due to a spotty justice system, and because of the misogynist attitudes of police officials,” she added. “Our existing mechanisms, such as government helplines and women’s desks at police stations, are dysfunctional. What guarantee is there that the app will work as intended? What are the chances that it will yield any success?”

Shirin recommended that the Sindh police and the government should advertise the app and conduct awareness campaigns in villages and slums to teach local women how to register complaints.

Anti-harassment apps are popular and have long been used in other countries such as the USA, Malaysia, India, but for Pakistan such apps seem to be a first. As such, there is no evidence of whether the technology helps improve access to justice and protection for women. In other countries, where reporting mechanisms and the justice system are more robust, and women’s protection laws more effectively implemented, such apps have seen some success. For Pakistan, this remains to be seen.

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