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Apeksha Bagchi

IWB Blogger

Elsa D’Silva Is Making Cities Safer By Creating A Map Of Areas Where Sexual Harassment Is Rampant

  • IWB Post
  •  June 1, 2018

So, you’re shifting to a new city, haan? I bet you’ve already Googled the best cafes and places that will fulfill your wanderlust. But what about knowing how safe the place is? The world we live in is, unfortunately, rife with everything that makes knowing the answer to this question rather important. And lucky for us, Elsa D’Silva has built us a roadmap to the answer, literally.

When the Nirbhaya gang-rape happened, it shocked the entire nation and also somehow gave many the courage to break our silence, whether it was on being harassed, teased, groped on the streets or raped. Living in Delhi, Elsa, who herself had faced such incidents, realised that everyone has a story to share. All that was needed was to give them a platform, so she decided to build one – Safecity.

Launched on December 26, 2012, the Safecity app lets women share stories of harassment and abuse they face in public spaces, to report “what happened, where it happened and when it happened”. The information collected is then translated onto a map in the form of hotspots or location-based trends.

But this brilliant stroke of innovation doesn’t end here. Let’s find out how Safecity is actually contributing to making our cities safe, from Elsa. Excerpts:

Safecity is a very innovative platform. But the data that is collected is useful in what ways?

My main aim was, and is, to encourage people, be it men or women, to share their stories and bridge the gap that is created by incidents not reported at all which gives us a fake sense of security that a particular place is ‘safe’ just because there have been no reported incidents.

Safecity

This data is useful on two levels – on an individual level it gives the option to be more situationally aware of the places we are going to, and at the community level, armed with the data we can hold police and other concerned authorities accountable for doing a better job like increasing the security at a crowded market area where there is a high frequency of sexual harassment cases, as well as the communities became vigilant against stalking and harassment in their vicinity.

An ingenious technique, undoubtedly! Countless women have contributed to it with their stories. Any story that is still etched in your mind?

Each and every story, Apeksha. Like people who came forward with their painful stories of child abuse. Imagine not being safe in your own house and such cases have poured in from India, Nigeria, Nairobi and many more places. In Nairobi, some girls have shared how on their way to school they are being groped by boys. One girl from New Delhi told us that on her way to the metro station, a car pulled up beside her and she was forcefully dragged inside. But luckily, a passerby saw her and pulled her out in time. Even talking about is giving me goosebumps!

Safecity

There is no scale of measuring which incident is more disturbing, the common denominator here is that how utterly wrong they are – humanity at its lowest if you ask me.

So true. But do you think such cases are more rampant in two-tier states than in big cities?

I don’t think that any such demarcation exists. It is just the state of that individual’s mind, what they are feeling at the moment, how much did the incident scar their confidence level. It doesn’t matter if the woman is from a two-tier city or a big city. Tell me, if a girl hailing from the latter is going through the emotional turmoil that whatever happened is somehow her fault, do you think that in this state of mind she’ll ever share anything for a long time? Nope.

Aptly put. So, on an individual level, how can one be of any help to a sexual abuse victim?

Just listen. Whenever they decide to come out with what happened with them, be a compassionate listener, not a judgemental one. Don’t criticize them for not saying anything earlier. You have no idea about the physical, emotional and mental trauma that person had to battle to muster the courage to even say a word about it.

Many times people are not even aware that what they went through was sexual abuse and only come to know of it later. Like in one of our workshops, when we were telling a class about the different forms of sexual abuse that include incest, a girl there realized for the first time that what her father was doing to her at home was not right.

Safecity

Has it ever happened that the women sharing their stories have asked for help as well?

You see, most of them want to remain anonymous, and we respect their decision. So when such cases are encountered, based on the location they shared, we put them in contact with the nearest NGO, that will be able to help them out. If it is during a workshop in a college or a corporation that someone shares an ongoing incident with us and if it is happening in the respective area, then we put up the matter in front of the committee in charge there.

You must have helped many women with this mapping system.

I certainly hope so. I remember there was this girl, who sent us a message saying how grateful she was for the help Safecity provided. She was in Haryana regarding her travel blog and used our app to navigate around the city. It made her aware of her actual surroundings and plan her steps accordingly.

I am so using your app to plan my next trip! So, I was going through your website and noticed that you hold workshops. What are they about?

For children, we hold awareness workshops, which includes teaching them about what child sexual abuse actually is, helping them understand the difference between good touch and bad touch, what to do if the face the latter, and that how these child predators manipulate them into hiding it all.

Safecity

Gender Sensitisation Workshop for Teachers

In our workshops for college students, the main topics are sexual harassment, knowing what proper consent means, what is called a healthy relationship. For parents and teachers, it is about enlightening them on recognizing signs that their child is going through sexual abuse and to not let the slightest indication of the same slide away as nothing.

Safecity

What about the corporate sector?

We conduct workshops on the theme of prevention of sexual harassment of women at the workplace, socio-cultural norms, etc.

If surveys and newspapers are to be believed, there has been a spike in the number of sexual harassment cases. What do you think about it?

I would term it as the spike in awareness, and confidence of the victims in actually coming forward with their stories. They are finally ditching the label of being a victim.

I totally agree with you here. So, you’ve been mapping many cities for years, what would you say have been the red zones?

The red zones continue to be in and around major transportation hubs, whether they are bus stations or they are metros, railway stations, because they are the ones with poor lighting and safety protocols. Also busy markets come in the list as the crowded spots give perfect cover to stalkers and perverts who are just laying in wait.

Safecity

You said that everyone has a story. Would you like to share your #MeToo story?

There have been many such incidences that have taken place in my life. I’ll tell you about the one when I was 13 and about to get down from the train on the Andheri station. In the crowd that is formed around the door minutes before we reach the station, someone lifted my skirt, slipped his hands in my panties and touched my private parts. The impression this left on my mind was profound. I was scared to travel in public transport or be in crowded areas.

A scarring memory it was, but in India, there is this tradition of blaming the victim for being raped or harassed. How do you plan to tackle this problem?

Safecity is my solution to all this as other than urging women to share their stories it also serves as proof that if in a particular place an act of sexual harassment keeps happening to different people it means that the backward mindset that the victim instigated the culprit in any way is senseless.

Safecity

On an individual level, seeing others share similar experiences effectively nullifies one’s thoughts that repeatedly echoes what the society says, that it’s their fault somehow. The stories of others give them the strength to pull themselves out of this negative mindset.

Having made a significant difference already, what are your plans for 2018?

Right now, we are present in five cities, Mumbai, Patna, Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Pune. Apart from expanding to more cities, we are planning on reaching villages as well. Obviously, the focus will be there on making the technology we use more robust and data secure.

This article was first published on March 3, 2018.

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