How India’s Safecity gives women a voice against violence

Safecity began as a website for reporting incidents of sexual violence. Now the group reaches for deeper impact through workshops, mapping exercises and pressuring the police.

MUMBAI, India — Elsa D’Silva remembers clearly the day in 2012 when news broke of a horrific gang rape in Delhi.

D’Silva was in her home in Mumbai. Like people all across India, she was horrified to hear that a 23-year old college student was so gruesomely attacked on a bus that her intestines were left hanging out. The young woman, known to the public as “Nirbhaya,” later died from her wounds.

The incident reminded D’Silva of a time from her own childhood, when a man on a local train groped her under her skirt. That troubling episode had always stayed with her, although she never told people about it. She knew she was not alone in her silence: Practically every woman in India had experienced unwanted stares or touching, and sometimes much worse. But openly talking about any of it remained taboo.

The next year, D’Silva decided to do something about it. She quit her corporate career working in the airline industry and dedicated herself to the quest to eliminate violence against women. What women needed first, she thought, was a place to tell their stories — a way to be heard.

Soon after, she launched Safecity, an online platform where women report personal experiences of sexual violence in public spaces. The website takes these crowd-sourced reports and maps them to show where the “hotspots” are for harassment against women. The site’s motto: “Pin the creeps.”

In just three years, women across India have documented 7,500 disturbing experiences: staring, whistling, touching, stalking and rape. The platform also allows women to cite locations that are potential danger spots — areas with poor or no lighting or where crowds of men or boys hang around. Pinpointing danger zones not only helps to identify places that should be avoided, but also begins to provide data that can lead to interventions towards safer cities.  

In three years, the Safecity website has registered 7,500 complaints of sexual harrassment.  

“My challenge with Safecity is to get people to question the status quo and to come forward to break their silence,” says D’Silva. “That is the first step towards addressing the issue.”

The online forum is an important alternative to official reporting procedures, because women are often reluctant to go to the police. They fear the shame that the incident will be seen as their fault, or that police won’t take action against the perpetrators — all of which exacerbates a culture of silence.

The stories that began to pour into Safecity were heart-breaking. D’Silva read every one of them. “We saw women reporting events from 20 years ago, in vivid detail,” D’Silva says. “They’ve been carrying around this baggage.”

Beyond crowdsourcing

D’Silva decided more needed to be done to prevent these incidents from happening in the first place. So Safecity — now made up of D’Silva, four full-time staff members and a host of volunteers — started going into communities, schools and workplaces to host discussions about sexual harassment with both women and men.

Initially, the idea was to help people understand what kind of behavior is acceptable and what isn’t, and what action women can take when victimized. Over time, the discussions have taken on a formal methodology that Safecity has structured into workshops and trainings.

Participants of Safecity workshops map where in their neighborhoods they feel safe and unsafe.

Today, Safecity’s outreach programming is conducted largely through college students, young women who volunteer to be “Campus Ambassadors.” The ambassadors, after going through training, take Safecity’s message and its workshops out across Mumbai and to cities across the country.

Ashwini Syed, who heads Safecity’s training, says the workshops are important tools in arming women with information. “Women often aren’t even aware that there’s a law for ogling or staring,” says Syed.

The workshops, like everything Safecity does, begin with listening to the community’s needs in order to understand their particular issues around women’s safety. In the Mumbai slum known as Dharavi, Safecity ran a workshop in partnership with a local NGO focused on maternal health called the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action, or SNEHA. In the one-day session, 25 young men and women between the ages of 11 and 25 spent time discussing some sensitive issues.

In the session, Safecity’s Riddhima Sharma and Anu Salelkar started by asking the youth how they feel about spaces in their neighborhood. That led into an exercise that questioned what made them feel safe or unsafe. Both the young men and women were united in the feeling that the presence of police stations or religious institutions helped spaces feel safer. Meanwhile, a lack of safety was associated with darkness, secluded spots and overcrowding.

The group, says Sharma, was more aware of their thoughts on harassment, domestic violence, child sexual abuse and victim blaming than other communities they go into. But what was surprising was what happened next, when the workshop progressed from discussion into a mapping exercise.

Maps drawn at workshops frequently show many more places marked ‘unsafe’ than ‘safe.’

Participants broke up into five smaller groups. Sharma and Salelkar gave them a lesson in “safety mapping” — how to draw the details of their neighborhoods (streets, institutions, public spaces) and mark what they perceive as safe spots with a check mark and unsafe spots with an “x”. Then they headed out into different areas of Dharavi’s twisty, narrow and dark bylanes.

“Although the group had shared a lot through their time with SNEHA, I don’t think they’d ever thought about how few spots in their neighborhood were considered safe,” says Sharma, whose group marked just two safe spots on its map and a lot of “x’s”. “They were really surprised.”

The participants are now in the next step of Safecity’s workshop training, which involves surveying the community. Safecity has a questionnaire that communities can tailor to their own needs. The survey helps gather information on local perceptions of sexual harassment, raising questions such as: Who are the victims? And: Who commits these violations and why?

Taking action

Both the hotspot maps and the qualitative survey arm residents with data that can be transformed into solutions. Safecity acts as a facilitator in interpreting what the information means and how it can be used to approach the police, municipal authorities, local schools, religious leaders and elected representatives.

In Delhi, Safecity data identified a hotspot in an urban slum where men were lingering near a local tea stall and intimidating women and girls walking by. During Safecity’s meeting with young girls in the slum, they said it was one of the most pressing problems they’d like to change about their area.

In a Delhi slum where men frequently intimidated women, Safecity organized an art workshop for girls. They painted a mural with staring eyes and a message: ‘Look with your hearts and not with your eyes.’ 

Safecity organized an art workshop for girls, who painted the wall near the tea stall with staring eyes and a message: “Look with your hearts and not with your eyes.”

“The staring and loitering has stopped,” Sharma wrote in a report on the program. “The girls can walk comfortably, with no stress, to school, college or work, without fear of being intimidated by those men.”

It’s this leap from a name-and-shame website to a movement to create awareness and action around sexual violence and harassment that has defined Safecity’s three-year growth. Importantly, Safecity now sends monthly data reports to the police in its three target cities: Delhi, Mumbai and Goa. The police have taken note of what’s happening when and where and in some cases have even responded.

For example, in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, women were reporting a rash of chain-snatching incidents. Safecity encouraged the women to report the stories on the website or by calling a hotline — a key addition in a country where many lack access to the internet or are illiterate but almost everyone has a mobile phone. While they wouldn’t go to the police, the women did report to Safecity, which then approached the police with community members. The police reviewed the trend documents and changed their patrol beats to crack down on the robberies.

Jessica Xalxo says attending one of Safecity’s workshops gave her a new confidence. “I personally feel much more alert and sensitized to my surroundings and the happenings in it,” she told Citiscope in an email. “I feel that a greater sense of justice can be done if we, by ourselves in our little way, stand up to harassment and abusers at the same time as the event occurs. I feel confident enough to do so.”

These are sentiments D’Silva says she hears regularly. “What is most surprising or rather shocking is how global and universal the issue of sexual violence is,” says D’Silva, whose work is now being recognized with international awards and speaking invitations. “Whether it is a basti (“slum”) in India or in Aspen, USA or the TEDx conference or Sweden, I have women and girls walking up to me and thanking me for the work we are doing and the voice we are providing to the issue.”

In fact, now Safecity is looking to export its model to cities in other countries. D’Silva is setting up an operation in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, in partnership with a group called the Polycom Development Project. She’s also working in Kathmandu, Nepal, in partnership with the group Social Empowerment by Empowering Women. As with the workshops in India, Safecity has trained the other organizations’ teams on campaigning, community organizing and crowd-mapping technology — a methodology they believe will bring about lasting change.

When asked where she sees Safecity going, D’Silva says what she’d most like to see is for the work to no longer be necessary. “I hope I won’t have to be mapping sexual violence — that there will be no need to,” she says. “Until then, we will do our best and partner with as many people as we can.”

(Photos courtesy of Safecity)

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change. Full bio

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