Mixed reactions on whether safety apps can help curb sexual misconduct

Reports made via a safety app in Toronto led to the arrest of a man suspected of two sexual assaults. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Would mobile applications to deter would-be sex offenders, which are available in other cities, work in Singapore?

In Japan, a free smartphone app developed by Tokyo police to help scare off would-be molesters by activating a security alarm has been downloaded more than 220,000 times, Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported recently.

When activated, the Digi Police app can shout "stop" or set off a loud alarm. A message, "There's a molester. Please help", will also be displayed on the screen that victims can show to people around them.

Other cities have safety apps that can send alerts to emergency services and contacts, or help victims make reports. Most have had positive results.

An app launched in 2017 by Toronto Transit Commission, which allows passengers to discreetly report harassment and safety concerns on public transport, saw more than 500 reports in its first 10 weeks.

These reports led to the arrest of a man suspected of two sexual assaults.

A Peeping Tom case at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has sparked a public outcry over how sexual misconduct cases are handled and punished, prompting NUS to review its practices.

Women and women's groups contacted by The New Paper were not aware of such apps here and were divided on whether they would be effective.

Most said it is not their natural instinct to reach for their phones when harassed.

Ms Tammie Kang, 26, said: "I would be traumatised and probably shout for help first."

The marketing communications executive said an app's efficacy also depends on who receives the reports, who acts on them and the outcomes. She said: "It would be better if the app is backed by an authority. At least there is some form of accountability."

Singapore Council of Women's Organisations president June Goh said a neutral and accessible platform such as an app could encourage reporting and would be useful for victims too afraid to do so in person.

Anonymity would also greatly benefit victims who fear retaliation.

Dr Goh said providing information on various resources, such as helplines, is also important as this will enable victims to get psychological, social, medical or legal aid easily.

However, she noted victims of sexual harassment may also need the simple human act of speaking to someone after such traumatic events.

Ms Lim Xiu Xuan, a case manager at Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre, said the onus should not be on victims to deter or report sexual harassment, but on the perpetrators not to harass in the first place.

"A better method of combating sexual harassment, we believe, centres on public education about consent, respect and healthy sexual relationships," she said.

But technology can help in documenting evidence, accessing legal remedies and seeking support, Ms Lim added.

Aware has been exploring the possibility of an online platform to document survivors' experiences to facilitate reporting later. But it has hit some roadblocks, she added, without elaborating on what they are.

Ms Lim added that technology can be a barrier.

"Technology cannot replace all human processes just yet. What is important is to identify barriers that survivors of abuse are currently facing and design technology-driven options for them."

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