When Vice President Joe Biden—a longtime opponent of violence against women—announced the Apps Against Abuse technology challenge in 2011, Brooklyn, N.Y.,-based filmmaker and activist Nancy Schwartzman knew she had to respond.
Never mind that she had never created an app or written a line of code in her life; a firmly held passion for reversing rape culture and the fact that 19 percent of university-age females report sexual assault was motivation enough.
The Circle of Six app invites users to designate six friends as their “circle” of people from whom they can seek help when in trouble. With one tap, users can send a text requesting to be picked up (complete with a GPS tag), ask to be interrupted with a phone call, or say they need to talk about issues of abuse in their relationship. It also provides external hotlines and resources for those experiencing or wanting to stop abuse.
When the team’s creation originally won the White House challenge, it was intended for college-aged females in the United States. But when the Indian press devoted significant coverage to the app in the midst of a brutal gang rape of a 20-year- old New Delhi woman, Schwartzman noticed Indian downloads went from a few hundred to several thousand.
With India’s terrible record of addressing sexual assault—in 2012, 600 reported rapes in New Delhi alone resulted in only one conviction—Schwartzman saw an opportunity to adapt the app for a specific audience.
Thus, nearly a year after the app’s official launch and in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the US, the Circle of Six app has launched a New Delhi-specific version. The localized version is translated into Hindi and provides local hotlines and resources for users to reach with one tap. Schwartzman is also in talks with Mexican health officials to launch a localized version in Mexico City.
The design and utility of the app is meant to challenge some commonly misheld notions about rape and violence, such as the idea that "stranger danger"—or rape by an unknown individual—is the main threat.
“I was always really looking at sexual assault between people that know each other—at work places, dorm rooms, spring break.These are gray-area experiences that are certainly violating to women, but not treated that way by the courts or the media.”
The app—which now has 55,000 downloads in 26 countries—is designed to give women an “out” when they are in an environment where sexual advances may be socially acceptable (while at a house party or working at a bar, for example) but can still feel uncomfortable or threatening.
Instead of wondering “What do I do? Who do I call? Where am I? Should I walk home?” the app takes those variables out of the scenario and embeds them in one’s phone. Females aren’t then forced to wonder “who will come pick me up at 4 a.m.?” because they’ve already asked friends ahead of time to be part of their “circle.”
Even though her app mostly addresses issues relating to acquaintance rape, Schwartzman believes that all forms of violence and harassment against women are related and thus the solution must be holistic—and most importantly, it must include men.
“The fact that it’s just a given that any urban park will empty out at dusk of women—and that if you don’t accept that as a woman you’re ‘asking for it’—is insane,” she said. “Circle of Six gives men the opportunity to be accountable to someone by being part of their circle, to help to stem the tide of rape culture, and to call out bad behavior when they see it.”