A woman on her phone on the street at night

Women’s safety: why the Home Office’s decision to back the Path Community app has proven controversial

An app designed to help keep women safe on their walk home has received backing from the Home Office – but campaigners have warned it does nothing to address the root cause of why so many women feel unsafe at night.

The Home Office’s decision to back an app that allows people to track their friends’ journeys home to help protect women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder has been met with widespread criticism from campaign groups and social media users.

The free, not-for-profit app – which is called Path Community – provides those walking home at night with a monitored route on their phone.

If the user strays more than 40 metres from the designated route, or stops for more than three minutes, the application asks them if they are OK. If they do not reply, the user’s chosen ‘guardians’ – such as friends and family – are sent a notification. They can then check on the user to see if they’re safe, and alert the police if they’re still concerned. 

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The application has been live and available for download since Christmas for trials by around 500 people (including Metropolitan police officers from the Southwark and Lambeth division) to iron out any glitches. It officially launches this week.

As well as providing the tracking service, the app uses machine learning to create and suggest safe routes for users, and gathers information about hazards or unsafe spots reported by users to share with local organisations and police, in order to tackle problem areas in the long run.

Speaking to The Telegraph when the plans were first announced last week, Rachel Maclean, the Home Office minister, said schemes like this app were necessary to make the UK’s streets safer for women and girls. 

“We need a whole of society approach to tackling violence against women and girls and I welcome initiatives from the private sector that deliver on this aim,” she said. 

However, while the idea of having an additional safety net while walking home at night will likely sound appealing to many women, women’s safety groups have called out the plans for failing to address the main reason why women feel unsafe at night – male violence.

Speaking to Stylist, the CEO of Rape Crisis England and Wales Jayne Butler said the app was “yet another example” of an initiative that puts the onus on women and their friends to be responsible for their safety.

“Spaces are not unsafe because of the streetlights or the environment or what we are wearing – they are unsafe because of violent men,” she said. “There are obvious concerns around the safety of the data this app is collecting and the danger of this being misused by abusers, but mostly this is an example of a sticking plaster.”

A woman on her phone at night
The Path Community app uses machine learning to create safe routes.

Butler continued: “Women already go to great lengths to create a sense of safety by trading in their personal freedoms, another app is not the solution to the underlying issue. “Addressing harmful attitudes towards women and challenging rape culture is long overdue. We want to see an initiative from the Home Office that addresses the behaviour of violent men, not that asks women to do yet more work to keep themselves safe.”

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said that the Home Office’s decision was an “ineffective way” to address male violence against women, adding that a range of “superficial responses” to the issue had been announced over the past year.

“Measures aimed at monitoring women’s movements rather than the actions of perpetrators can lead to victim blaming and wrongly place the burden on women to be constantly vigilant and to focus on keeping themselves safe from violence,” Simon explained in a statement shared with Stylist.

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“We know that women already take many safety precautions when they go out, but this is never going to be enough to prevent abuse. These responses are at best ineffective and at worst, drive over-surveillance of Black and minoritised communities due to discriminatory policing practices and constrain women’s freedoms and rights to privacy. This is particularly concerning for women who may be at higher risk of violence, including from abusers who use tech to control and harm their partners.

Simon continued: “Solutions focused on women’s safety are producing measures that fail to get to the root of the problem: men’s attitudes and behaviour. This app will do nothing to deter a perpetrator intent on harming women, nor will it address the deeply rooted attitudes, norms and inequality that underpin violence against women.

“The government has had ample time and feedback to come up with meaningful responses to violence against women. We expect to see long-term, sustainable funding poured into measures that prevent men’s harmful behaviour and provide life-saving support to survivors, rather than sending messages to women that they need to do more and more to keep themselves safe.” 

And speaking to The Guardian, Anna Birley from the campaign group Reclaim These Streets, which was set up in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder last year, called the Home Office’s decision “insulting to women and girls”.  

“We already share our location, we already ask our friends to text us when they get home, we already wear bright clothes, stick to the well-lit routes and clutch our keys between our fingers,” she said. “It still isn’t enough. Women and girls, and the steps that we take to stay safe every day, are not the problem. The problem is that male violence makes us unsafe.”

In a statement issued to The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Home Office said its Tackling Violence against Women and Girls strategy launched last year included initiatives and funding to target potential perpetrators and protect potential victims, including the pilot of the StreetSafe online tool, which allows the public to anonymously report areas where they feel unsafe.

While taking the time to confront and address the pervasive issue of male violence won’t be easy, it’s necessary if the government wants to ensure that women feel safe both at home and on the UK’s streets. Part of that will be reforming the criminal justice system to address its failure to support women survivors of male violence (just 1.5% of reported rape cases currently result in a prosecution, for example), but the work can’t stop there.

Indeed, experts agree that even a properly functioning criminal justice system wouldn’t be able to eliminate male violence against women – instead, we need to tackle the misogynistic attitudes that often drive and enable male violence in the first place.

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Not only does that mean ensuring conversations about consent, respectful relationships and harmful gender norms are had from primary school onwards – and giving teachers and schools the resources to do this – but it also means challenging the attitudes of men who have long left school.

And that’s why Stylist recently renewed its call on the government and Home Secretary Priti Patel to launch a long-term public awareness campaign about male violence against women, aimed directly at men, through our initiative #AFearlessFuture. 

The government committed to this kind of campaign back in July when it published its long-awaited strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, but it’s yet to publish any further details about when this might emerge.

To find out more about Stylist’s #AFearlessFuture initiative, and to join us in writing to the Home Secretary, you can check out the A Fearless Future series

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