Monday, February 23, 2015

Making cities safer

Change-making begins from within: whether it is by choice or by chance. To many of us, the call to action might be a life-changing incident, or perhaps, even a chance at introspection. For Elsa D’Silva, the call to action was ingrained: it was just about attending to it. Excerpts of our interview follow.

(c) Elsa D'Silva
I worked in the aviation industry for the last 20 years and had a great time. However when my company went bankrupt, I decided to make a career switch to the social sector as I really wanted to use my experience and skills to make a difference. My friends and I found that there was a gap in the system where every woman's experience of sexual harassment was not being recorded. Official statistics do not represent the actual issue and we as society only get outraged when someone gets raped or brutally attacked. We felt why does a woman have to experience this to get society's attention? Could we change it and make information more readily available? Personally, I love to travel - both on work and for leisure. Most often I travel solo and I definitely want to be safe.  Secondly, as a woman who had risen to the top of the career ladder (my last portfolio was Vice President Network Planning) I realised that not many women make it to the top. I often wondered how I could contribute towards changing that. How do I empower women and mentor them so that they could achieve their potential? With Safecity I find myself doing both - addressing the safety needs as well as mentoring women to achieve their goals.

In 2012, I was fortunate to have been selected for the India programme of the Swedish Institute on CSR. It was there that I met my cofounders Saloni Malhotra and Surya Velamuri. During the course of the programme we decided to work on women empowerment and more importantly on safety as the rape in Delhi took place shortly after the programme. We wanted to do something concrete and not just pay lip service to the issue. We were inspired by Harassmap Egypt.

We started off as being an online platform but soon realised that not many people were willing to share their story direct on the website. A lot of them did not even know what sexual harassment was and they needed encouragement to report. So we started on ground campaigns and workshops to explain the issue, educate women on the topic, the laws and the recourses available to them. We also encountered a lot of reluctance to report. A lot of women fear talking about it. However once they hear other people's stories they are able to identify similar experiences in their life and are more open to sharing. We see this in our workshops. 

Most often, the question we are asked is what action we are taking against gender crimes. I believe the first step is to collect this data that does not currently exist. Once you have the data you can then devise various strategies to solve the issue. We are working with various groups on ground in Lal Kuan, Dwarka, Noida, Gurgaon, Nepal, Cameroon and Mumbai to use the data. Initially people were skeptical about verification of the data. Crowdsourcing is a new method of collecting data and not everything can be verified. We try to explain that we don't work on individual cases but on larger trends which are location based. If you see our data set for Delhi, you can see clear location-based trends. For instance, in Connaught Place - touching and groping which probably has to do with it being commercial in nature and crowded, Rohini on the other hand has chain snatching which is because of its residential nature. Interventions can then be designed accordingly. Rohini for e.g. would require more police patrolling while an area like Lal Kuan which has staring as an issue would require education and awareness. We painted staring eyes on the walls at Lal Kuan along with Shilo Shiv Suleiman of the Fearless Collective as a means to address the issue. It became a talking point in the community.

We also made it a point to go offline to reach out to people. So we conduct workshops for different demographics tailored to suit individual needs - for children, youth, parents, corporate employees, and community residents. We have conducted workshops for over 2500 people in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Rajasthan. We are working with partners - NGOs, Police in Goa, Citizen groups etc to collect data as well as use the data in the community to bring about local change. For instance, in Nepal, we helped SEEW make a case for Pink buses (women only transportation) as women were being harassed and abused in the local buses. We concentrated initially on Delhi and collected a huge dataset which showed clear trends in different locations. This has helped us make the point for further need to collect more data so that effective interventions can be designed at the ground level. We are encouraging citizen participation. We have law students working in Dwarka, college students in Delhi University and high school students in Noida working to make small changes in their own localities. Now, we have a lot of organisations asking us to share data. So I guess we are doing something right.

Women have been conditioned to accept sexual abuse and harassment as part of their daily routine. This has to change. Mothers need to talk to their daughters more openly about it so that the young generation will feel empowered to confront their perpetrator and prevent the abuse. There is a lot of help available, we need to use it. Understanding the law and our rights and not allowing anyone to violate them. This is the first step towards empowerment. In our workshops we notice a lot of people don't know that there are laws that exist. Hopefully we are giving them information that they can use. It is very important to support each other. More women need to help one another. We cannot be mute bystanders but be change makers in our own small ways.

My dream is that one day there will be no need for any crowd maps like Safecity. But till then, I would like that women and people in general take a more active interest in their own safety and that of their little ring fenced area that they frequent (be it their home or place of work). If we take an active interest in making sure that area is safe, it will be a big step in overall safety which is a basic need. One can then move on to other areas like empowering women to become financially independent through education, career, and such else.