Elsa Marie D’Silva

“Groped in a train between Bandra and Dadar. First class compartment.” - Mumbai

“I was going to Shahdara metro station. On the way a man started whistling… In metros people touch and pretend as if nothing happened.” - Delhi

These are some of the experiences that have been reported on Safecity, an online platform that crowdsources and maps personal stories of sexual violence in public spaces in India, Nepal, and Kenya.

We started Safecity in December 2012 after a horrific incident in Delhi in which a young woman was brutally beaten and gang raped in a moving bus. The men who raped her shoved metal rods into her body, pulled out her intestines and threw her onto the street. She ultimately died of her injuries.

Sexual violence is a global pandemic. According to UN Women, 1 in 3 women around the world experience some form of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime, more than half before the age of 16. Women and girls hold back and rarely discuss their experiences—for fear of bringing shame to themselves and their families, dealing with the police, or the lengthy judicial process. This under-reporting has made the issue “invisible” and the official statistics do not reflect the true nature and size of the issue.

Safecity aims to bridge the gap between reported and actual experiences. We make it easy for people to document their experiences, thus creating a new dataset that did not previously exist. Users can report anonymously about the nature of the incident, the time/date, and the location.

Most of us think of sexual violence as only rape. We tend to ignore the other forms of sexual harassment as trivial, when in fact they can be extremely debilitating to many—limiting our choices, restricting our movements, and affecting our mental health.

In the awareness workshops that we conduct, we ask women and girls for a show of hands if they have never experienced any form of sexual violence. Often, several hands go up. But after going through the forms and definition of sexual violence, we ask for another show of hands, and none go up.

This leads us to believe that women and girls are uninformed of what constitutes sexual violence and are often unaware about their legal rights. Our workshops target different age groups to promote understanding of sexual violence, legal rights, healthy relationships, and child safety.

We hope that the data from Safecity enables women to make better-informed choices regarding their safety. For example, on the Delhi metro line, there are several reports from Nehru Place metro station, a “hotspot” for sexual harassment. Since the next metro station Kailash Colony is relatively incident-free, one might choose to board the train there instead.

We use the online data that users share to identify and address factors that promote sexual violence. For example, our data helped us to identify a hotspot in a Delhi slum, on a main road near a tea stall. Men would loiter there while drinking their tea and intimidate women and girls with persistent staring. We organized an art workshop with the Fearless Collective, where the woman painted a wall near the tea stall with staring eyes and messaging that loosely translates in English to “Look with your hearts and not with your eyes.” I am happy to report that eight months have passed and the staring has stopped, and the girls can walk comfortably to school, college, or work. 

Data is a powerful tool for holding institutions accountable. Upon being presented with Safecity’s data, the police in both Mumbai and Delhi have increased the frequency of patrols and changed beat patrol timing. At Lal Kuan, our data identified a hotspot where women were being molested when relieving themselves in the bushes due to lack of public toilets. The public toilets in that locality were locked because local authorities were not willing to maintain and clean them. Our data and the media pressured them to re-open and maintain the public toilets.

In early December, Mumbai-based artist Jai Ranjit will lead a Safecity workshop for college students and facilitate painting a wall outside their college to address passerbys taking unwanted pictures with their mobile phones.

We are in a moment in time where we can use technology and other resources to work collectively to make sexual violence visible, and to eradicate this global pandemic.

Elsa Marie D’Silva is the Co-Founder & Managing Director of Safecity, and is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Twitter: @elsamariedsilva