Gaining the Technological Upper Hand in the Fight Against Gender Violence

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-16 04:56

A group of college students have invented a device that can help combat gender violence by providing better access to emergency services for women in developing countries.

Security at your fingertips. [Image by Soterra]

Security at your fingertips. [Image by Soterra]



Lena McDonnell, a student at Lehigh University, says that up to a third of women will be the victim of sexual violence at least once in their lives. Women are already prone to sexual violence even in developed countries with easily accessible emergency services, so imagine what the situation must be like for women in countries with limited access to phones or the internet.


The XPRIZE Foundation is a non-profit organization that sponsors competitions aimed at encouraging young entrepreneurs to come up with technologies that solve different problems around the world. 21 teams of students have recently been selected as finalists for the Anu and Naveen Jain Women's Safety Prize, a $1 million dollar prize offered by the foundation. McDonnell and her team 13 other students offer up a device called Soterra for consideration.

A More Accurate Tracking System

Members of Team Soterra explain how the device works. [Photo by Lehigh University]

Members of Team Soterra explain how the device works. [Photo by Lehigh University]



Soterra is quite simple to use. Pressing the device three times sends out a red alert that goes straight to the police. However, there may be situation in which the user would prefer not to get the police involved. Whatever the reason may be, the user can simply press the device two times, alerting a preselected list of contacts that may include family and friends.


"In almost all of these cases, the victim is unwilling to call police for fear of escalating the situation or because she doesn't trust the police,” says McDonnell. “Also, in some parts of the world, victims are blamed for a sexual assault that has occurred." McDonnell also adds that in 80 to 95 percent of sexual assault cases, the victim knows the perpetrator.


Team Soterra is planning on building two prototypes of the device. One is a Bluetooth mesh networking solution with a range of 1,000 feet. The team plans on developing a second prototype that has a much farther range and uses a radio frequency mesh networking solution.


The device, McDonnell says, has a GPS system that’s more accurate than systems that trace 911 calls in the US. There’s also a barometer in the device that can measure pressure and thus tell responders which floor of a building the user is in.

Collegiate Finalists

Girls and women in developing countries may have more access to emergency services when needed.

Girls and women in developing countries may have more access to emergency services when needed.



"We met for more than five hours a night, every night for four weeks, to work out the details," said McDonnell, referring to the process of developing the device to meet the deadline of the competition. Team Soterra went up against 84 other teams from various countries such as Spain, India, and Germany, and was selected as one of the 21 finalists for the prize on November 15. Remarkably, Team Soterra was the only college-based team to make the finals.


The finals will be in April 2018, held in India. The winner of the contest will be announced in June of the same year. According to McDonnell, whether or not they win the prize, she and her team are intent on finishing the device’s development.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!