After a couple of beers in the tourist district of Hamra in Beirut last November, I felt like taking a walk across town to Gemaizeh, a vibrant street lined with cozy bars and good music. Detoured by a checkpoint in the dark, I lost my sense of direction and found myself in an area that felt just ‘different’. Instead of people chatting in the street there were men, only men, smoking shisha pipes in silence and eyeing me critically. I’d not noticed the black flags surrounding this little enclave and had walked into a very dangerous part of town, and it felt like it.
Unexpectedly stepping into danger zones can happen anywhere, and the sudden sense of vulnerability can rapidly induce panic. In Beirut there’s an under-current of tension because you know it’s not safe, and it must have been the same for the girls in Northern Nigeria who ended up being kidnapped by Boko Haram and tagged #BringBackOurGirls. They will have known that the sound of vehicles arriving in the night was always possible, and will have prepared a little, even if just to shudder at the very thought of it.
I wasn’t at all prepared – I was just looking for another beer. Acting insouciant I took to the centre line of the street and breezily popped open my ‘Sports Tracker’ app, studying my phone like I’d just got a random text message. Sports Tracker is what I use on bike rides to record my route and speed, and I reasoned that if I got into trouble I’d be able to quickly sync the data so my journey and its end, perhaps bludgeoned in the boot of a car and manacled with cable ties, could be read from the cloud. Beirut’s mobile network is great, so I thought this would be pretty straightforward so long as I could keep my phone long enough to hit ‘sync’.
This wasn’t the most elegant solution to my predicament, but I thought it worth my while. But then I’m an expert at this sort of thing, and am comfortable fiddling with my phone while cycling round London in light rain and poor light.
The girls in Nigeria will not, in all likelihood, have considered whether they could leave an electronic breadcrumb trail with their phones for investigators to follow. Besides, was it even possible? Did any of the girls have a phone with GPS, is there a data connection in that part of Nigeria, are girls even allowed to have phones at school, let alone in the dormitory? Did they have any airtime credit? Were they stripped of every possession before being bundled into trucks and off into the darkness?
Given that over 200 girls were taken I’m willing to guess that some of these conditions were met. Half of the girls will have had a phone, a quarter of these a smartphone, a fifth will have got a data plan – which makes five. It just would have taken one of them to send out a Viber message with the location fix enabled to indicate where they had headed.
I don’t expect they got a chance, and we may never find out – I expect their capture was a violent, terrifying ordeal designed to stamp out any thought of dissent. But that’s not the point – from the specific, let’s look at the general and figure out if we should be actively teaching safe mobile practice to young women at risk.
Let’s take the ideal situation and work back from there. Women who find themselves in danger, or enslaved, deprived of their rights, or simply frightened and needing support, would be better off if they knew their mobile phone could help liberate them. When an Indian politician last year demanded that all mobile phone makers design in a Big Red Button for women to press in emergency, I laughed at the cynical naivety of such a stunt – until I realised that he was onto something. Of course, manufacturers wouldn’t put an ugly red button on the phone, but app makers have been doing just that for years. An app that is quick to access, with a super-simple, stripped down interface, which with a click will do something useful. Think of the Flashlight app, or Google Now – one swipe or two and they’re active.
So building the app part is easy, but what about the education? Who is going to teach young women how to use their mobile phone to keep them safe? How can we get to a stage where women, faced with a situation like I myself faced in Beirut, know instinctively how to shift electronically to a ‘start tracking me’ mode. How can they be sensitised to the idea that a smartphone is an amazing platform for helping women keep safe and get out of danger? Who is going to teach them how to use the tools?
We need to build resources that help women to help themselves. Training materials they can buy in the market, download onto an SD card and run on their phones, browse through on YouTube, and ‘Like’ on Facebook. The demand, we know, is there. On the supply side, smartphones with GPS and twin cameras running Android Jelly Bean are down at US$45 street price in Asia, new, and a Gigabyte of data is under US$10 even from the mobile operator. There’s even a few apps, like HarassMap and Safetipin. What’s missing is the training materials, optimised for delivery to the devices women have – a CD player, a cheap mobile, a community centre with a trainer. It’s a small gap to close.
So what’s the answer to the title of this blog post: could training these girls have helped them? We can only guess. But the lessons women need to learn are generally simple – get connected, hook up to social networks before you find yourself in need, know how to share your location using Viber or WeChat, seek out help and support. This isn’t hard to teach.