Women-founded start-ups aim to tackle safety issues through tech

A wearable gadget called Athena enables women to easily call for help when they feel threatened. The gadget's creator, Yasmine Mustafa, hopes to protect women from violence and sexual assault – but others see the device as ineffective in getting to the root of the problem. 

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Protesters gather at the Grand Park for a Women's March against sexual violence in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2018. It is estimated that 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, a figure reflected in the momentum of the #MeToo movement.

Friends had warned Yasmine Mustafa about the dangers of touring South America solo. She came home with a notepad full of scary traveler tales and the seeds of a safety invention.

Meet "Athena" – a one-press button that summons help when danger looms, part of a growing market in portable, panic-attack devices tailored for an increasingly dangerous world.

Many are aimed at women at a time when sexual misconduct has made headlines from the Oval Office to the casting coach, and after the #MeToo campaign heightened worldwide awareness of sexual harassment and assault.

Ms. Mustafa said her customers included dog walkers, nurses, taxi drivers, and online daters. "The people that wear it all the time are the people that have been attacked or assaulted," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mustafa said the assault stories she had heard from fellow travelers in South America, followed by the rape of a neighbor, were the twin catalysts that pushed her into action.

In 2014, she founded a social enterprise, Roar for Good, and launched her wearable gadget Athena three years later, allowing users to alert chosen contacts if they ever felt threatened.

"Tens of thousands" of Athenas, which clips onto clothes, have been sold, according to Mustafa, with each one costing $80.

The polarized climate – hate crime is on the rise, political rhetoric is shrill, and women endure a torrent of abuse from internet trolls – is horribly good for business.

"We got a lot of outreach from women who wear hijabs, women who experienced more street harassment as a result of all the rhetoric that is being shared here in the United States," Mustafa said by telephone from her company base in Philadelphia.

"The emails that we received even mention they've experienced more harassment than usual as a result of our current president."

Roar for Good is a social enterprise – a business that seeks to do good as well as make money – and some proceeds go to charities that run education programs on violence and abuse.

A security blanket for women

It is estimated that 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime and a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found the United States to be the 10th most dangerous country for women.

Several tech innovations aimed at keeping women safe have come to market in recent years, some invented by women with personal experience of assault. Aside from the sleek buttons – which come in fashionably matt colors – women can also buy keyrings, wrist bands, and jewelry that house safety devices.

Sales of such products are set to grow by 13 percent in the next five years, according to analysts Market Research Future.

Wristband SAFER PRO, which sends alerts while recording audio, won this year's $1 million Women's Safety XPRIZE, a global competition for technologies to help protect women and girls from violence.

But a US women's group which works to prevent sexual assault has expressed reservations about the effectiveness of such gadgets, which do not address a wider cultural problem.

Like Athena, attachable safety device Revolar can alert contacts to a user's location so they can send help.

Revolar was founded by Jacqueline Ros, whose sister was assaulted twice, and Andrea Perdomo, whose grandmother was kidnapped by guerrillas in Colombia.

While Mustafa reports that less than 1 percent of users have pressed the button to ask for help, Revolar reports 6,400 red alerts were triggered on the 30,000 devices they sold in 2017.

"We have addressed hundreds of emergencies, but the real key is that on thousands of occasions, every single day, we have [helped] people connect with those people who are important in their lives," said a company spokeswoman in emailed comments.

Mustafa said her product made women feel more confident.

"It's just like using pepper sprays or tasers. You never know if they are going to be useful, it depends on that moment. We focus much more on preventing something happening," she said.

Ineffective in prevention

Kristen Houser of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which works to prevent sex assault, said devices were of limited use as they were used when danger was already underway.

"These gadgets don't have any impact on whether or not people in our culture feel they have permission or ability to scare others, whether that's following them, cat calls, inappropriate comments, or literally an attack on their person."

More than two-thirds of women have been followed, according to a global survey of nearly 17,000 women by Cornell University, and most women experience street harassment before turning 17.

Ms. Houser said her organization has noted heightened insecurity among women since the US presidential election was won by Donald Trump, who had been caught boasting about groping women.

"Whenever you have a prominent person expressing sentiments that let you feel unsafe or like violations of your personal boundaries aren't a big deal, that can make anybody worry – are other people going to follow suit?"

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Women-founded start-ups aim to tackle safety issues through tech
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today