LONDON/MELBOURNE VIA SKYPE: It was during a yoga class in Mumbai where the idea for SafeCity—an Indian-based not-for-profit organization that collects and collates data on sexual assault and abuse in public spaces— first crystalized in the mind of former airline executive Elsa D’Silva. It was a week after the 2012 brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, and it seemed all of India was talking about sexual violence directed at women.
One of Ms. D’Silva’s fellow yoga students interrupted the class to talk about how his son had rushed out into the early morning to come to the rescue of a female friend being harassed in a pub. The young woman had been to a wedding and decided to stay out longer. “Women in the class were asking ‘what was she doing out so late and she must have been wearing a skirt, she must have provoked it,’” said Ms. D’Silva. “And he was saying, ‘No, she comes from a decent family.’ I was listening to this crap and getting really upset and thinking, ‘I have to do something.’ If I am sitting in a yoga class filled with upwardly mobile people from a certain strata of society and [women] are bringing up their sons [to think] like this, it cuts both ways.’”
According to statistics from UN Women, globally one in three women face some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime while in India, a rape occurs every 20 minutes in the country. But the majority of women and girls, for a number of reasons, do not talk about abuse for reasons ranging from a culture of fear to fear of police and victim blaming. So there is much underreporting on the issue. Ms. D’Silva—who has won numerous awards including a Digital Women award from She the People—decided that there needed to be a way to document incidents of abuse in public spaces and create a platform to break the silence on a neighborhood level.
SafeCity, which exists as online and social media platforms for women to chronicle and archive harassment in India, has gained recognition for their work and their statistics are now being used by police in three states in India, with two more states in the process of teaming up with the organization.
They have set up partnerships with organisations in Cameroon, Kenya and Nepal, and have recently teamed up with groups in Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago to chronicle abuse in those countries. A few university campuses in the U.S. and the U.K.—including the University of Denver and University of Southampton—will begin mapping sexual abuse incidents starting in September with the help of SafeCity. Ms. D’Silva, during a vacation in Melbourne, spoke with she-files about the success of the project so far and the importance of allowing women a safe space to express their trauma. Excerpts:
BROWNELL MITIC: You come from an aviation safety background. How did that lead you to setting up SafeCity?
D’Silva: I started out as a flight attendant and then I was a safety instructor, teaching cabin crew safety and emergency procedures. After that, I went into management training that got me on the fast track for the strategic part of the business. My last portfolio I was with Kingfisher Airlines where we planned the route network. In 2012, Kingfisher shut down so I had to think about the next step in my career and I wanted to give back. But I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on. It was after this horrific gang rape in Delhi on a bus when I decided to focus on safety and security.
That tragic incident brought worldwide attention to the issue of rampant sexual abuse in India.
It was one of those moments when everybody rallied together and in fact, it was one of the first times a curfew was declared in the city. I was shocked and I was observing all the reactions of people and just listening to conversations of people about their own experiences, about what they thought about the incident– from both women and men. And some of this stuff that you heard was horrific.
How did you come up with the concept for SafeCity?
Right before this incident, I heard about HarrassMap Egypt, which maps sexual assault in that country. I had volunteered for an organization that was mobilizing the community in Mumbai around [jewelry] snatching. That gave me the confidence that we were on to something. With very little money and efficient use of resources, we have been able to do a lot. In aviation, we used historical data to predict future trends and that is exactly what we are doing with women’s stories—they are historical perspectives that we are using to identify patterns and it gives you insights of what could be the problem and possible solutions.
How exactly does it work?
Most of these reports are anonymous and it is just a way to document the issue and share what has happened. So we are interested in what happened, where it happened, the date and time. And the woman has the choice to leave her name and email but that is not necessary. They can report incidents on our website, we have a Facebook page, we are on Twitter and you can send over email and we have a voicemail facility. [With phone calls] that is usually when someone needs help in the moment, it is usually cases of domestic violence where they need legal help or counseling. We pass those cases to NGOs that provide that kind of support. We are very clear that we are in the preemptive space and it is important that women document their stories. If we had intelligence of something that is location-based, we can learn from each other. We would be better prepared and react faster.
We are not looking at individual reports but at the bigger trend in that location. But it does also work on other levels. For many women it is very cathartic to just write the story. Lots of the reports we get [from women] are from [incidents that happened] over 20 years old so that tells you just how much baggage those women were carrying with them all through life. When somebody else is sharing her story it resonates, and maybe you did not have the language, you did not have vocabulary for it but now you do. You can put words to what you went through.
Sometimes acknowledgment of what has happened can make a big difference?
Just having something in the public domain makes institutional service providers like the police and other authorities all accountable in their jobs. In one community in Delhi, they invited police to their meeting and the police said, “we do not have anything in our records” and the community said, “we have 200 reports and we can provide copies of the report.” So they had to make a public retraction of the statement and they said they would look into it. So these are powerful.
So the authorities have been taking on board what you have been doing?
It has been a pleasant surprise. I remember speaking at a security conference and I was the only non-policeman speaking on the panel. And they said they were already looking on my website for trends because they understood that women don’t go to [the police] for such kinds of reports and that they often go to reports on internet sites because that is where they know the information lies. So I said, “that is okay if that is the case, why not work together officially” and they were very receptive.
You have also been working with communities in Nepal, Kenya and Cameroon. How did that come about?
VitalVoices is based in the U.S. and works on a cohort of women’s issues. I was at a regional meeting and I met women from Kenya and Nepal who were mapping in their communities and they asked, “can we use your platform?” And I said “sure” so we do Skype trainings for them and they have collected a small amount of data, and we started helping them understand the trends and they got grants from VitalVoices to take it to the next level. Now our partner in Nepal have convinced the authorities to issue women-only bus licenses. We are currently developing a mobile app that will be launched in September. We are getting requests for mapping human trafficking, for violence against women in politics, domestic violence as well. But we are not sure yet how mapping provides a solution for that.
photos courtesy SafeCity: 1) A graphic for SafeCity; 2) a map of incidents in India; 3) Ms. D’Silva