- Date : 10/01/2018
- Read: 9 mins
While attempting to increase sexual harassment awareness, Elsa Marie D’Silva is changing lives in India and several other countries.
United Nations Women states that 1 in 3 women face some sort of sexual assault, at least once in their lives. While governments are trying to address the issue and improve it, there is still a long way to go. Many non-government entities are also pitching in to make the world a safer place for girls and women. Safecity is one such organisation, which has been using crowdsourced data to create awareness on sexual abuse and harassment.
Founded in 2012 by Elsa Marie D’Silva, Safecity is currently present in India and several other countries. A trained counsellor, D’Silva made a career switch from aviation to the social space to help improve the lives of women. In her journey so far, she has won several awards, including She The People’s ‘Digital Women Award in Social Impact’, European Angel Investor’s ‘Female Entrepreneur Award’ (2013) and is one of Niti Aayog’s Women Transforming India. Here’s what she has to say about Safecity and her journey so far.
1. Safecity is a unique initiative. What prompted you to address the issue of safety?
Safecity is our flagship program where we encourage people to report their personal stories of sexual harassment in public places, anonymously. The aim was to have information available so people can improve their situational awareness and decision making regarding their safety. We started this a little over four years ago, after the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. At the time I was looking for my purpose and I decided that I wanted to make a career switch. I knew I wanted to work towards improving the lives of women and girls. It was after the gang rape incident that I had complete clarity. This is my response to that incident.
2. Tell us more about Safecity and its journey so far
When I started this initiative, I had not researched much on the issue, nor did we think deeply about it. We just had a passionate need to do something concrete. We had heard of a similar initiative in Egypt called ‘HarrassMap’ and wanted to replicate it here. I found that anywhere you go, especially in India, we don’t talk about sexual violence; it’s quite a taboo topic and as a result, most of the official data does not reflect the true nature and size of the problem.
Once we launched, we were overwhelmed by the stories that started coming in. Reading them validated the need for this. I started volunteering my time on-ground, mobilising communities and organising them around an issue. Our first success was in Bandra, Mumbai, where along with residents we used data regarding chain snatching and petty robbery to convince the police to change their beat patrol timings. We got the municipality involved in trimming the trees and changing the street lighting too.
When we realised this was a success, we took it to Delhi with NGOs that had convening power in the community. We tried it in low income settings and found that it worked well there. What I found was that when you have data, it drives decision making. Then (a) the community becomes more involved in the issue and (b) no one can dispute the data. You are forced to look at the situation from another perspective and find solutions because these incidents are not acceptable in your community.
Our journey started in India, but soon I started getting requests from other women leaders, working on women’s rights in other parts of the world, asking me if they could use my platform. That’s how we started working with friends in Nepal, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago. Currently we’ve included a mobile app which is available on Android and iOS, in Hindi, English and Spanish.
3. How do you measure the success rate of Safecity’s objectives?
We measure success by working on several individual projects and measuring the outcomes from them. Whether it is our community based programs or checking whether people have a better understanding of the spectrum of violence, their rights, and their willingness to report and participate in any form of action. We also measure our interactions on social media; are we generating more conversations. We also check the sentiment analysis. If we want people to report these incidents and break their silence, the taboo element must be eliminated. Every person who has interacted with us, has gone on to be an active bystander. While most men might not be perpetrators, we have many people who only observe but don’t intervene in such situations. Therefore, by giving them a place to express themselves by blogging, social media or on ground volunteering, we build their confidence to address this issue, as well as taking a stand openly and intervening by preventing this crime from taking place.
Wall mural to raise awareness on sexual violence. Safecity allows for anonymous reporting.
4. What kind of response has Safecity received from local authorities and government bodies?
We share the info with three police sources in India – Mumbai, Delhi and Goa. One question most people have is – does the police even do anything with this? I’ve been tagged on social media, and people said that they have got a lot of response. The Delhi police was very impressed and they asked us to be part of the Parivartan program. We did a lot of child sex abuse awareness programs in schools in north west Delhi. At any local level where we work, we include the local police station, not just in India but other countries as well.
5. Where, according to you, does India rank in terms of women safety? What needs to change?
India is quite low on the list when it comes to women’s safety. On an average, UN Women states that one in three women around the world experiences some form of sexual violence. The statistics in America is one in four, and in Sweden it’s one in five. That is still 20% for an egalitarian country. In India, we don’t have enough data, but the National Crime Research Bureau says that there’s a rape every 20 minutes and that’s unacceptable. From my interactions (workshop with 15000 people), pretty much over 90% of them have experienced some sort of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. That’s quite a high number. In India we lack knowledge and awareness of abuse. We have a strong legislation, but there is no point if people don’t make use of it. I think education is extremely important in getting people aligned that this is totally inappropriate, criminal and that there is a punishment for this behaviour.
6. Safecity is present in several countries, and even launched an app recently. What’s next?
It is a global app and we have started getting reports from the Caribbean, Mexico, North Africa and Southampton, UK. My aim is to market this app so that people use it all over the world. But we are looking for strategic partnerships where we can deep-dive into specific areas and find long-term solutions with this data. As we keep adding more partners, I hope that this becomes a resource and tool for governments, police and citizens.
Elsa with Hillary Clinton at the Vital Voices Global leadership awards in March 2017 where Elsa was awarded the Light of Freedom award
7. What are the biggest challenges of starting and running a not-for-profit organisation?
Personally, it has been a steep learning curve as I made a career switch. I had to start from scratch, understand the sector, build my own network. Funding has also been an issue. Initially, I boot-strapped it, then it was through donations or awards that we won. Tata Trust was kind enough to give us a grant because crowdsourcing wasn’t a popular concept and crowdsourced data was not viewed as an acceptable data set. But now people understand its value. We’ve been very lucky to deal with quality corporates and brands, and we are very grateful to our sponsors.
8. Have you ever felt like you’ve been treated differently because you’re a woman?
During my time in aviation, I wasn’t conscious of it. But when I look back now, I realise that I was at a disadvantage. While you are in it, you are so caught up in the work momentum that you don’t realise that you’re being discriminated against. For instance, when I worked in aviation, I started as a flight attendant and my last portfolio was Vice President Network Planning. But even then, I was getting some push-back. That was when some of my seniors sat me down and explained that a lot of people still saw me as a flight attendant and ignored the fact that I had excelled at my work or up-skilled myself.
Many women are disregarded just like that; their views are dismissed because they aren’t seen as equals. However, I am very focused on work, I persevere and don’t let failure get to me. I learnt from my setbacks, but I realise that many women might not have my personality or a good support system. Sexual violence is one barrier that keeps women from achieving their true potential. Can you imagine your family abusing you under the disguise of safety; limiting your career choices, keeping you from education? Many girls have had to drop out of school because of harassment. This isn’t a levelled playing field for women. We keep talking about how India needs more women in the workforce, but that won’t happen unless all spaces are safe for them. Safety is an area where men don’t necessarily have to think daily. It’s our right and the government and our employers should do much more.
9. Along with physical safety, how important is it for women to be financially secure?
It is critical for a woman’s well-being. For example, if you are in an abusive relationship, you may be able to walk away if you are financially independent. Most abusive relationships are based on a disparity of power- women are dependent on the men. Financial independence can help you seek legal help or pay for counselling. Women must maintain their own bank accounts and operate them. I know a lot of women who don’t know how to operate their accounts. It is important to create a nest egg- some savings to deal with unexpected situations.
10. What are the 3 things you’d exclusively tell women about safety?
First, don’t be afraid to speak up. You must break your silence. Only then can you get the help you need.
Second, be aware of the spectrum of abuse. You should know your rights so you can take action if need be.
Third, is consent. Consent is mandatory. Please say no and have the other person respect it.
Those interested in volunteering with Safecity, can download the app from Android and iOS. You can also opt for different volunteer activities from the Safecity website- http://safecity.in/volunteer-activities/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article by Elsa Marie D’Silva are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of TomorrowMakers.com or its owners.