The horrific and brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman named Jyoti Singh in Delhi, India, in 2012 caused me to leave my comfort zone and join the online and offline global conversations about sexual violence that her death sparked. For the first time in my nearly 40 years of life, I had public discussions with friends, colleagues and family members about our personal experiences of sexual violence. The magnitude of the stories I heard — both in terms of number and content — shocked me.
Wanting to do more about the topic, I joined together with friends to replicate an existing solution called HarassMap Egypt and applied it to the Indian context. We created our organization Safecity in early 2013 as a place for people to anonymously share their personal experiences of sexual violence in public spaces. Their stories post to a digital map. Initially the stories came in a trickle. But then they began flowing in, from all over India. Stories about men’s verbal sexual harassment on the streets, groping on the trains, and leering at tea stalls. Some incidents women shared were from as long ago as 20 years. I read each and every one of them. I felt my heart breaking with every story. I felt I had opened up a Pandora's Box and wondered how I could ever do enough to make a difference.
But soon I noticed a shift in awareness about the issue. Many friends of mine, successful women in the corporate field, would call to tell me their experiences. They said they identified with the stories they were reading on our site and they helped them feel able to share their own. I felt hopeful when I saw people reach out and offer help and solidarity. Many of these people were men, some of whom for the first time were hearing how women felt. Quite a few of them have subsequently told me that they now have open conversations with the women in their lives about the issues they face.
It soon became clear that solely managing an online platform to crowdsource information was insufficient. We found that many women and girls did not know their legal rights nor understand what sexual violence meant. Most of them were only thinking of the most extreme form of it: sexual assault and rape. They viewed the verbal and non-verbal forms of violence they faced daily as too “trivial” to matter when in fact these forms could be extremely debilitating as they can limit people’s choices and movements and affect their mental health.
As I realized this knowledge gap existed, I thought it was no wonder there is widespread under-reporting and under-communication of sexual violence, making it “invisible” and difficult for women to report and law enforcement to act, whilst on the other hand, making the perpetrator bolder over a period of time. The official statistics do not reflect the true nature and size of the problem, and that’s one reason why creating the space and method for people to informally share their stories online is important and is leading to concrete changes offline. We also began holding workshops during which we explained to people their legal rights and how they can make official reports.
We expanded our work beyond online story-telling and began to collaborate with several partners on the ground in India across Mumbai and Delhi. Through story-telling, we identify hotspots of harassment and involve police to increase vigilance or change beat patrol timings, get municipal authorities to fix street lighting and clean public toilets. We have also gotten the community involved and made them aware of the need for solidarity on the issue.
One example of how this works was when our data helped us identify a hotspot in an urban slum in Delhi. It was on a main road near a tea stall. Men would loiter there while drinking their tea and intimidate women and girls with their constant staring. When we held a workshop and asked what they wanted to change about their neighbourhood, the young girls said that they would like the staring to stop. So we organised an art workshop for them and they painted the wall with staring eyes and subtle messaging that loosely translates in English to, “Look with your hearts and not with your eyes.”
It’s been over two years since the wall mural was painted and the staring and loitering has stopped. The girls can walk comfortably, with no stress, to school, college or work, without fear of being intimidated by those men.
In the four years since Safecity started, our work has spread beyond India. A pivotal moment came when I attended a Vital Voices regional conference for activists working on violence against women and girls in South Asia and Africa. My friends at the conference were interested in the work I was doing and the methodology I had adopted where I used the crowdsourced data and worked with partners on the ground to find local solutions. Soon I had several requests to collaborate and partner.
Our first international partner was Jane Anyango, Founder of Polycom Development Project in Kenya. We trained her team over Skype and answered the many questions she had over email. Together we decided to collect a small data set of about 200 reports of sexual violence. Jane and team had physical “talking boxes” placed in schools in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. Through the data collected, we were able to identify hotspots. One of them was in the vicinity of the mosque. Jane invited the local Imam to the discussions where she presented the data. He started preaching in his sermons the need for respect and talking about the sexual violence being faced by the girls. It had an immediate effect on the young men who were perpetrators. Jane also used the local community radio to talk about the issue, identify the hotspots and encourage reporting of sexual violence.
Another early partner was Samjhana Phuyal in Nepal who is the founder of SEEW. In Kathmandu, women faced major problems while travelling in the mini buses. They were over-crowded and regular spots for groping and assault. Samjhana started her Safecity campaign and soon we had a dataset that did confirm that transportation was lacking in safety. She was able to convince the transportation authorities to issue her a licence to operate a “women only” bus on one of the busiest routes in Kathmandu where they could ride in peace and safety.
We are currently working to expand Safecity to places like Trinidad & Tobago, Nigeria and the United States.
Changing cultures of violence are partly about policies, but it’s also about giving people a voice. By using technology to make it easy for people to share their stories and report, and thus transparently showcasing data, we can hold institutions accountable. But we have to do more than just collect data; that’s why the partnerships are key. We have to know what to do with that data to create localized, meaningful solutions. Join us, #LogOnRiseUp and let’s change the world.
How to Get Involved
Report sexual violence on www.maps.safecity.in
Get in touch if you want to start a Safecity chapter in your city.