How stories of abuse contribute to prevent violence against women | Q&A with Elsa DSilva

This week, as part of our #ICTforWomanity interview series, Womanity talks to Elsa DSilva, the Founder and Managing Director of the India based Red Dot Foundation, the creators of Safecity. Safecity aims to make public spaces safer and equally accessible to all through crowdsourced data, community engagement and institutional accountability.

Womanity: What is different about your platform?

EdS: 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.

Our main target audience are women and girls who are victims of sexual harassment due to a patriarchal culture.

Since our launch on 26 Dec 2012 we have collected over 8750 stories from over 50 cities in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal.

Our objectives are to

  • Create awareness on sexual harassment and abuse and get women and other disadvantaged communities to break their silence and report their personal experiences.
  • Collate this information to showcase location based trends.
  • Make this information available and useful for individuals, local communities and local administration to solve the problem at the local level.

W: Why is it important to report cases of harassment and abuse?

EdS: UN Women states that 1 in 3 women face some kind of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. But in our experience, the statistic in India seems to be extremely high. A rape occurs every 20 minutes in India.

Yet most women and girls do not talk about this abuse for a multiple of reasons — fear of society, culture, victim blaming, fear of police, tedious formal procedures, etc. As a result women keep silent and this data is not captured anywhere but the perpetrator gets bolder over time and we accept it as part of our daily routine. This leads to under communication and under reporting of the issue. If there are poor official statistics, the problem is not visible and is not a true representation of the actual problem. Therefore we need to break our silence and document every instance of harassment and abuse in public spaces so that we can find the most effective solutions at neighbourhood level.

W: What is Safecity’s theory of change?

EdS: If women are able to report sexual violence and have access to this data, then they will make better decisions regarding their personal safety.

W: What type of technology do you use in your programme and how does it make a difference?

Safecity consists of several ways that women/girls can connect with each other on the issue.

a) Crowdmap — People can share their stories anonymously by providing details of what happened, where and when the incident took place. This then gets aggregated as hotspots on a map indicating location based trends. People use the comments section to offer advice or show solidarity.

b) Social media — Facebook showcases our work, informs and advocates on current events and we have bloggers contributing a more detailed personal perspective. Twitter is a curated account so that different voices and perspectives can be heard.

c) Data from our site — is used to undertake local campaigns to find neighbourhood solutions. e.g. Police in Mumbai, Delhi and Goa receive a data file every month on location based trends. In a suburb in Mumbai, the police changed their beat patrol timings based on our data.

d) Workshops for different age groups and demographics to educate on the issue, laws and personal rights as well as challenging cultural norms and attitudes.

We are creating a new data set which currently does not exist. Perception of the police’s insensitivity as well as cultural backlash deters people from reporting. They feel more comfortable using our platform and this is seen by reports from over 20 years ago.

By representing the information thus collected on a map as hotspots, we are moving the focus away from the “victim” to the location and people can view the issue with a different lens.

Also people can sign up for alerts either based on location or category of harassment. This allows people to understand the “safety” landscape of an area and make the most informed decision for themselves. e.g. They can decide on time of visit, method of transport to use, if they need to be accompanied by someone or even what clothes to wear.

Today we make choices for pretty much everything based on reviews — books, movies, restaurants, hotels but we have nothing for personal safety. We are creating this database which can be used in several ways.

W: What questions do your partners/funders/policymakers never ask you, you wished they did…EdS: Sexual violence is ultimately a societal issue and not just a woman’s issue. Therefore I wish funders and policy makers would insist on making this reporting tool mainstream and integrate it into the routine processes.

I wish more partners would step up to collaborate with us as we cannot solve the issue on our own.

W: How did working closely with service users enable you to transform your programme?

EdS: Initially we started off as a pure online platform but we soon realised that there was a lack of awareness of what constitutes sexual violence and the legislation. In response, we had to commence awareness workshops and advocacy campaigns to make people aware of the issue, the legislation and the redressal process.

Arun believes in the power of art and is working with a group of boys to design murals for an arterial road that is accessed by most people of Sanjay Camp.

W: Who would you love to have at the table, in order to make ICT for women’s safety a mainstream topic in every day conversations?

EdS: I would like to have the Prime Minister of my country take up the challenge to put an end to violence against women in all forms. He has a smart city programme through which he can give priority to women’s safety. By endorsing it from the very top, he can set the tone for the rest of the administration to follow.

W: Can you share a short story of success that your venture triggered?

EdS: Recently we did a campaign in a neighbourhood in Delhi where a young girl joined in the community work. She had dropped out of school as she didn’t feel confident dealing with the daily harassment like commenting, staring, she faced on her route. However after attending our workshops and educating others on the issue, she decided to go back to school. You can read her story here:

W: What was a pivotal moment in/around your programme?

EdS: A pivotal moment would be when we started doing awareness workshops for child sexual abuse. A 9 year old came to me after the workshop and said that she could now tell her mother what her uncle had done to her as she now knew that she had not done anything wrong. That was powerful and brought home the fact that our work was indeed making a difference one child at a time, one neighbourhood at a time. It also complemented our online work with regards to being pre-emptive in addressing the problem.

W: How do you monitor your performance and measure your social impact?

We carry out surveys before and after our campaigns and workshops to understand if there is increased understanding of what constitutes sexual violence, better understanding of the legislation, the increased willingness to report the experience and increased willingness to take action.

We see small changes in every campaign we document. For e.g. Take Sanjay Camp, a neighbourhood in Delhi where the community was totally engaged. They presented the data to the police in a public forum and got them to increase vigilance. They took charge of community toilets and painted them with messaging about the issue women and girls were facing and listed the various legislations. Within a week, the men who were loitering and intimidating women and girls outside the toilet complex moved away.

Connect with Elsa and the Safecity team online on www.safecity.in , on Facebook, and Twitter @pinthecreep @SafecityIndia

If you are part of an organisation that harnesses ICT/New Media to prevent violence against women, get in touch and connect to our #ICTforWomanity learning network, here.