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Safecity. Taking control. Calling for action.

Entrepreneurial determination and technology making cities safer for women

Interview between ElsaMarie D’Silva the Founder and CEO of Safecity and Fiach O’Broin-Molloy, Social Development Adviser in DFID’s Inclusive Societies Department.

The 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women are now well underway! I had the chance to catch up with ElsaMarie D’Silva, Founder and CEO of Safecity, to learn more about how she has responded to the issue of sexual harassment. In case you don’t already know what that is, Safecity is a pioneering technological response to ElsaMarie’s determination to do something about the level of sexual harassment in public spaces. Safecity is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. This data gets aggregated as hot spots on a map indicating trends at a local level. The idea is to make this data useful for individuals, local communities and local administration to identify factors that causes behavior that leads to violence and work on strategies for solutions.

The beautiful illustrations in this post are brought to you by Yaansoon Illustration

When did you start SafeCity?

I started Safecity in December 2012 as a response to the horrific gang rape of Ms. Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. The incident was quite shocking and it opened up the conversation of sexual violence in India. For the first time, I recall, many of my friends started talking about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse and I was reminded of my own experiences which I had subconsciously suppressed until then. I decided I had to do something concrete to make the issue more visible and so along with my friends, I launched Safecity.

What were you doing before then?

I was in the aviation industry where I had a long career of close to 20 years. I had started my career as a flight attendant, then got promoted to flight safety instructor, fast tracked to a revenue management specialist and finally I led a department working on network planning and was responsible for over 500 daily flights. Though my job was challenging, I was looking for my purpose and wanted to give back, especially on women’s rights. 2012 was a year when several things happened — the airline I was working with went through a financial downturn and eventually ceased operations. I was attending a management program by the Swedish Institute during this time and heard about several interesting initiatives around the world using technology for good. So when the gang rape took place, I decided to take the plunge and use my time to work on the issue of sexual violence.

What was the problem you saw that needed to be fixed and why did you think it was something you needed to do something about?

When I started to research the issue, I found there was not much data on sexual violence in public spaces. Due to the shame associated with it, many women and girls stay silent and do not report their experiences officially. They are also afraid of dealing with the police and intimidated by the lengthy judicial process for justice. The official statistics do not reflect the true nature and size of the problem. This under reporting and under communication of the issue makes it “invisible”.

Many people are unaware of the spectrum of abuse, assuming that all of it is only rape or sexual assault which is at one end of the spectrum. We tend to ignore the verbal and non verbal forms of sexual violence thinking they are too “trivial” when in fact they could be extremely debilitating to many, limiting choices and opportunities, restricting mobility and affecting mental health.

I had several experiences when growing up. One of these was on a train when I was about 13 years old. I was groped in a manner that I felt completely violated and whilst I didn’t make the connection then, it was only when I started doing this work, I realised why I hated travelling by train in India and why I would choose any other option including a bus which was the slowest.

What is unique about the way SafeCity is addressing this problem?

Safecity is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. This data which maybe anonymous, gets aggregated as hot spots on a map indicating trends at a local level. The idea is to make this data useful for individuals, local communities and local administration to identify factors that causes behaviour that leads to violence and work on strategies for solutions.

Since our launch on 26 Dec 2012 we have collected almost 11,000 stories from over 50 cities in India, Kenya, Cameroon, Nepal, Nigeria and Trinidad & Tobago and directly reached over 400,000 people.

Our reporting platform includes a variety of ways a person can report — a webapp, mobile app on android and iOS, a missed call in India, email — info@safecity.in, Facebook chatbot and Twitter @pinthecreep.

By allowing for anonymous reporting, we encourage women to break their silence but also feel empowered to take action by having access to information. They can make different choices for their safety. But, lets be clear, women should not have to accept the normalcy of sexual harassment and so Safecity is also a powerful tool to help women get their communities to take action and hold institutional service providers like the police and municipal authorities accountable. This is a new data set which can help in decision making. Just like we use peer review sites like Trip Advisor, Yelp, etc, we can share our experiences and learn from each other.

What were the biggest hurdles you faced in getting started?

The biggest hurdle was and still is, getting women and girls to break their silence around sexual violence. Since I didn’t come from the women’s movement nor did I major in gender studies, I had to learn the sector, create my networks and decide how to make the organisation sustainable.

Have you had a mentor along the way? And do you support or mentor others?

I have been very fortunate to have had amazing mentors and support networks. I am part of Vital Voices which is a woman’s leadership network, Aspen New Voices which focuses on improving communication skills and giving you a platform to raise your voice. I am also part of several other fellowships that have helped think through my own leadership journey, given me the opportunity to showcase my work at the global level and challenged me to dream big and bold.

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Skip ahead 5 years

What does SafeCity look like?

I honestly hope we won’t exist in 5 years. We should not have to exist. But I am afraid we might still be around. If that is the case, I do want us to be a platform that is easily top of mind when it comes to women’s safety and working closely with police and governments to make public spaces safer.

How do users feel?

Users should feel comfortable sharing their stories but also using the data to find solutions in their own communities. I believe if we have to solve the issue of sexual harassment, each one of us must be active to intervene and play a preventive role. Data can help us with insights and give us the information needed to design solutions or plan interventions.

What role are you playing in the story?

We are bridging the data gap that exists between daily reality official statistics. We also facilitate the interaction amongst community and between them and institutions. This is necessary for an active citizenry and democracy where institutions are accountable to the people.

How can people reading this get involved and support your mission?

First of all, please down load our mobile app, report sexual harassment, read up on the issue and inform yourselves on the legislation existing in your country. You can also check if there are reports in your neighbourhood and if there is, invite your friends and neighbours to discuss and find solutions. Do not ignore the issue but take an active role to end it. Have a dialogue with your friends about it — are they experiencing it, what causes it and how can each individual be an agent of change. We also invite volunteers to participate in social media campaigns, blogging and on ground action.

We are having this conversation during the 16 days of activism to end Violence Against Women and Girls and also during an unprecedented global conversation on sexual harassment. Do you think we are at a tipping point?

I would hope so that we are at a tipping point. Technology does help us bring people together and raise awareness. But there is a huge population out there, who are not part of the conversation. How do we include them?

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Do you have any reflections on #MeToo or #HerToo?

#MeToo clearly validates the need for Safecity, the need to make the issue more visible and highlight the magnitude of the number of incidents. But I worry that like with every social media movement, this might fizzle out and lose steam. Also I have many friends who posted only the hashtag #MeToo on their social media wall without their story. That tells me that we have a lot of work to do as they are still not comfortable sharing their stories. When will we reach a stage, where women and girls feel safe owning their own story and feeling like they are not being put under the scanner or justifying their behaviour? #MeToo has created a space for conversations on the issue and we need to keep up the pressure so that institutions and organisations feel more compelled to take positive action to make public spaces and workplaces safe for women and girls. Men and boys also need to be part of this conversation, they cannot claim ignorance and must call out toxic masculinity.

What role do you feel celebrities and political actors playing on these agendas and how important do you think this is?

It helps when a celebrity or an important person speaks about the issue. It helps others come forward and break their silence. Also when an important person is held accountable for his actions, it sends a powerful message that this cannot be tolerated any longer. These are role models with huge numbers of fans/followers and they should be modelling appropriate behaviour.

Do you think that governments should be doing something differently or something that they aren’t doing?

Governments have a key role to play — set the tone, walk the talk and ensure there is legislation in place. According to UN Women, on an average one in three women around the world experience some form of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. No country in the world is untouched by the pandemic of intimate partner violence — 1 in 5 women and girls aged 15 to 49 across 87 countries reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner; 49 countries have no laws specifically protecting women from domestic violence. Harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, continue to rob women and girls of equal opportunities. The numbers are staggering — at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM; and over 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. In India, every 20 minutes a woman is raped as per the statistics of the National Crime Bureau.

So honestly, this issue must be addressed top down and there must be a single-minded determination to end violence against women and girls.

The time has come to take firm measures on achieving SDG 5 and achieving true gender equality where every woman and girl has the right to live her life without fear, with dignity and respect in an environment that is truly equal.

More on ElsaMarie

ElsaMarie D’Silva is the Founder & CEO of Safecity that crowdmaps sexual harassment in public spaces, and is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow and the recipient of the 2017 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award. Safecity is recognised as a social innovation at the Solutions Summit 2016 by UN Foundation and UNAOC’s Intercultural Innovation Award. You can follow her on twitter:

About the artwork in this post

The beautiful illustrations in this post are brought to you by Yaansoon Illustration. More from this illustrator: I’m an illustrator and artist with a passion for world & tribal cultures + botanical & culinary stories. She is also the blogger behind “The Illustration Blog of a Nomadic Mediterranean Foodie” on Yaansoon.com — a Food and Travel illustration blog.