Imagine walking down a dark street, or any other place or situation where you might feel threatened, and knowing you’re just one click away from support and protection, on the phone or in person. That possibility is now provided by an Israeli app called SafeUP.
Women who register on the new app, for free, create a community in which women and girls can get help from other women if required. The project joins a list of other noteworthy local initiatives, including one being developed by a group of youths from Be’er Sheva that identifies when a date-rape drug is being used.
How does SafeUp work? The app is designed for all women, says activist and social worker Danielle Beker, who is community developer at the Tel Aviv-based company.
“Any female can download the app and sign up,” Beker says. “After the registration process, the request to join is reviewed by our team of female volunteers, who verify each request to ensure the safety of the community members. Men who want to exploit the app or imposters cannot join this space: Our team of verifiers contacts each member of the community by video chat to ensure the member is actually a woman. Then our quality control team reviews the requests to join and makes sure everything is as it should be.”
Once a community member has been approved, she can assume one of two roles, Beker says: “A community member under the age of 18 can only request assistance, while a community member aged over 18 can both request and provide assistance,” she explains.
Those volunteering are called "shomrot" (female guardians); they watch a digital course found on the app menu, which provides them with the necessary knowledge and tools.
The app aims to enable women to safeguard one another and enable them to avoid sexual harassment and assaults. It does so through three features: “Walk and Talk”; “Help Now”; and “Share Location.”
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The “Walk and Talk” feature allows any woman who’s feeling unsafe while walking outdoors to open the app and request a guardian. One “pops up on your screen and chats with you until you safely arrive wherever you’re going,” Beker says. Pressing the “Help Now” feature “will bring up three female guardians who are within 500 meters of you on a video chat,” she continues. “They can escort you by video, come to where you are within a short time or immediately send police to you based on your location, which they see on the map.”
Finally, “Share Location” allows the user to share their whereabouts if they feel unsafe. “For example, if you got in a taxi, or accepted a lift or went into a house and suddenly felt that something wasn’t right, the guardians will see your location and know how to help you,” Beker says.
You'll Never Walk Alone
The project’s first pilot began last September, in conjunction with the Tel Aviv municipality. Specifically, the project began in the Florentin neighborhood near the city center, and more than 50 women from the area signed up. “In a short time, they spread the word about the project and now more than 16,000 women and girls have joined” nationwide, Beker says. She adds that the app boasts women from 10 to 70 “taking part in the community, in hundreds of towns and cities around the country.”
The project has also expanded beyond Israel’s shores. “In February, we started communities of female guardians in Boston, New York, Washington and 43 other cities in America,” Beker relays. “The first members in Europe are starting communities in most European countries. The goal is that anywhere in the world, there’ll be a group of women looking out for you and there for you, so you’ll never be alone again.”
According to Beker, the app receives on average about 100 requests for help each month in Israel, and that number is growing. She says that after every request, she contacts the community member who called for help and also the guardians who responded.
In one instance, a guardian reported: “On December 7, I moved to Dimona and then I logged on and could see that there are guardians here too, very close to me. At night, I was getting ready for bed, I heard my phone buzzing, on vibrate, on and on – who can it be? It’s after midnight already. I saw it was the app. I pressed and a woman appeared on the video and she was close to my home. She said she was walking and someone was following her and she was afraid, so I told her: ‘It’s OK, I’m with you. Can you tell me where you are, more or less?’ She said she was really close to where I am, so I offered to come out and accompany her. I got ready quickly and went out to her, and when I got there the guy took a few steps backward, turned around and kept walking. I brought her to my house and suggested that she call someone to come pick her up. And that was it. She got home safely.”
Another community member wrote to Beker: “I go between Florentin and Shapira [neighborhoods in Tel Aviv] a lot and the path from one neighborhood to the other isn’t very pleasant. At night, the question always arises of how I’m going to get through this route and who I’ll talk to while I’m walking. Since the app has been around, the answer’s obvious. It’s become my default that’s always there for me, and the walk doesn’t make me nervous like before. I know that, no matter what hour, there’ll always be someone who will answer me and accompany me until I get home.”
The inspiration for SafeUp came from a real-life incident almost a decade ago. SafeUp CEO and co-founder Neta Schreiber Gamliel recounts on the company’s website how, in 2011, she was at a house party when she suddenly noticed that one of her friends had disappeared. “My friend and I searched for her in a panic and, as we headed upstairs, we heard her voice amid a group of men’s voices. We went into one of the rooms and there they were: the men, and our friend, half-naked, fighting them. When they noticed us, the men immediately fled. We managed to get there just in time – luck and women saved my friend that night. In 2019, I decided to develop an app that would unite women under the common goal of mutual protection and safety. I believe that together we can harness the incredible power of women in order to change the world.”
That same year, Schreiber Gamliel joined forces with Tal Zohar Avda and together they founded SafeUP.
Beker says that, ultimately, the company hopes the app will be profitable. “We can help organizations and municipalities improve women and girls’ sense of safety in the public space by using an anonymous ‘heat map’ that can show where, when and why women and girls feel unsafe. Using the map, the people in charge of those areas can make data-based decisions about ways to make the area safer for women,” she explains. “For instance, if we have information about a street that at certain hours prompts a significant amount of requests – choices can be made about possibly adding more lighting, organizing patrols by parents, or having more policing there.”
Beker continues: “The frustration and helplessness that most of us feel upon seeing the endless headlines about murders and rapes is intolerable and we shouldn’t remain indifferent to the situation. Appropriate and sensitive escort by phone, in-person assistance from a woman who lives nearby or summoning the police for you when you’re unable to do so yourself – this is how we can come in and change the situation.”
She cites the example of Adi Guzi – the woman who saved the life of her neighbor in Mitzpeh Ramon, Shira Isakov, when she was being attacked by her husband last year – as a prime example of how a connected sisterhood can help empower women and change the situation.
However, with all due respect to this admirable project, we also need to remember that many acts of sexual violence occur in settings that are considered safe, such as within the family. Who knows, maybe one day it will be possible to develop an app that will not only help defend women against the misogyny that leads to such violence, but will uproot it from deep within the heart of society?