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India pushes for wristwatch to ward off sexual violence

Following the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old and subsequent calls for better protection of Indian women, the government proposes a gadget that would alert police, send GPS coordinates.

The OnWatch app, winner of the White House Apps Against Abuse challenge, operates on a similar principle as the wristwatch would.

Could a wristwatch help deter sexual violence?

That's what Indian officials hope. The government has proposed a watch that can alert family members and authorities, and also start filming, when the wearer feels threatened.

Kapil Sibal, India's information technology minister, unveiled early plans for the device at a briefing last week. He said the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, a unit of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, is already working on a prototype.

The watch would send a text message to the nearest police station and preselected family members at the press of a button, as well as relay GPS coordinates. Built-in video capabilities could produce 30 minutes of footage.

Sibal said the government hopes to have a prototype by midyear and would then seek production partners. "In case the government decides, we are very much interested to manufacture it," K.L. Dhingra, chairman of state-run telecom equipment maker ITI, told the Wall Street Journal's India Real Time.

Dhingra confirmed that ITI has held initial discussions with the government about the device, which Sibal said would sell in $20 and $50 versions.

Sexual violence has been a central and very public topic of discussion in India following the brutal December gang rape of a 23-year-old woman who died from her injuries two weeks later. The incident sparked widespread anti-rape protests, calls for justice for the young victim, and a very public international debate about women's safety in India and the responsiveness to sexual assaults by law enforcement there. A verdict in the gang rape case is expected "very soon," according to some media reports.

Given that the violence against Indian women is so widespread, the proposed watch has been met with some skepticism there.

"I don't think this will make any difference in controlling rape cases," Sehba Farooqui, a woman's rights activist in Delhi, told India Real Time.

Then again, such a device is better than no device at all, and if widely adopted and recognizable, it could serve as a deterrent in some situations. At least that's the idea. Come to think of it, such a device could prove useful for virtually anyone, almost anywhere, who ever leaves home.

India is not the first country to turn to technology as a tool for curbing sexual assault.

In 2011, the White House challenged developers, through an initiative called Apps Against Abuse, to create apps aimed at combating the alarmingly high rate of violence against college-age women.

The winner of the competition, OnWatch, operates on much the same principle as the proposed Indian wristwatch, alerting campus police or 911, as well as select friends, when a user needs help.

Researchers in Israel, meanwhile, have developed a sensor that they say can detect common date rape drugs in drinks with 100 percent accuracy.