"I always answered loads of questions. That was why I thought he liked me," Zara* remembers. She was just ten years old, attending a regular class at school in Mumbai, India's most populous city. Then one day her teacher asked that she stay behind. "After shutting the door, he turned around and told me to raise my top. I was paralyzed with fear. So he started to lift it up himself. When I resisted, he turned away angrily for a second, and I sprinted off."
While Zara did report this incident, such speaking out is reckoned to be extremely rare in India. Though the country's government officially recorded only 24,915 rape cases in 2012—a per-capita figure actually below the global average—the world's media outlets were busy detailing an apparent pandemic of Indian sexual violence, pointing chiefly to a series of gang rapes headlined by the fatal assault of 23-year-old student Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus. According to the Independent, India was "in denial about its rape culture."
Emblematic or not, Singh's awful demise was the tipping point for Elsa D'Silva. In early 2013, the former aviation professional, together with three female friends, launched Safecity, a platform that uniquely provides Indian women with the chance to anonymously document instances of sexual harassment they've suffered—everything from ogling to physical abuse.
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Each incident is subsequently pinned to an online map illustrating "hotspots" where harrassment seems particularly rife. Over 8,500 reports have so far been filed, the majority taking place in India and the numbers growing with ever-increasing haste.
D'Silva is certain that the official statistics are incorrect, and that few Indian women go to the police. Why don't they? "For various reasons," she explains. "One is cultural: In our patriarchal society, confronting a man directly is uncommon. Then there's reputation—the risk of bringing shame to your family—and fears of the expensive, long-winded judicial process."
What Safecity offers is an often-appealing alternative: a non-legal way to take a stand. "Failing to report harassment masks the problem," says D'Silva. "But by documenting it, you force people to take note. And you stand up for yourself, and say, 'No, this isn't acceptable.'"
Testimonies on Safecity suggest that sexual harassment has become scarily normalized in some parts of India. "I like to step out to my balcony," begins one. "Most mornings, roughly around 7:30, a 'gentleman' arrives on a scooter, goes into the empty plot, drop his pants and starts masturbating." Another recalls: "One guy groped a girl at the bus stand. She was struggling, (but) two other men standing there didn't intervene."
Though depressing to read, these reports perform three key roles. Firstly, it works as inspiration for women to come forward. D'Silva tells of women who have found the courage to report their experiences only after reading others' stories on Safecity. It's the same magic that underscores Alcoholics Anonymous groups: the precious revelation that you're not alone. Females can also learn how their counterparts dealt with a situation, and exchange solutions.
Then there's a review-like functionality. "If I want to eat somewhere," D'Silva ventures, "I check Yelp. When planning a holiday, I use TripAdvisor. So why not a site that aggregates safety information?" She utilizes Safecity's map herself. "One hotspot is Nehru Place, a busy Delhi metro stop where groping is regularly reported. Yet the next station, Kailash Colony, has almost no incidents logged. So I always alight at Kailash."
Most importantly, Safecity uses its data to enforce social change. Sometimes this is through contacting official authorities. Once the organization began identifying problem areas in Mumbai, Delhi, and Goa, for instance, D'Silva alerted the local police forces. Having never received information like this, all immediately requested more. Safecity findings now help decide if extra patrols or different-timed beats are needed.
Simultaneously, communities are encouraged to solve their own problems. Having identified a hotspot, Safecity works with NGOs to stage "interventions"—initiatives aspiring to break the status quo. Take Delhi's Sanjay Camp slum, where only a fractured partition separates the men and women's stalls in its toilet complex. Regular reports told of males filming through it, plus loitering in groups on a sofa outside and making lusty comments. Disgusted, some females had resorted to avoiding the complex altogether.
In December 2015, Safecity supported the painting of a mural onto the complex's walls, one containing relevant sections of the law. The impact has been wholly positive. "There's already much more confidence from women to use the complex," reveals program officer Salini Sharma. "And in a country like ours, where sanitation's such a problem, that's huge." What about the sofa? "It vanished within 24 hours."
Awareness of sexual harassment laws is the key focus of workshops SafeCity additionally runs for corporate groups, parents, youths and, particularly, children aged six and upwards. "A large proportion of sexual violence in India occurs to girls below 16," asserts D'Silva. "In ensuring that parents and kids know the legislation, our sessions can be pre-emptive, stopping the abuse at source."
Safecity now has partners in Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal, with Malaysia and Argentina soon to follow. Such expansion makes sense, as sexual harassment is hardly limited to India. Indeed for D'Silva, part of the problem is a deep-rooted global imperative to always concentrate on female accountability.
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"Take what happened in Cologne on New Year's Eve. Men sexually assaulted hundreds of women, and yet the (female) mayor suggested that ladies should adopt a 'code of conduct' to avoid putting themselves at risk. So often women are asked 'What were you doing at that place?', or told, 'It must have been what you were wearing, something you said, who you were with.' We need to shift that focus from women onto the problem itself."
India remains Safecity's chief battleground, with the miserable mid-January news of a 14-year-old girl gang-raped, shot and dumped in a New Delhi well reiterating the challenge at hand. Yet with her palpable successes to date, D'Silva has reason to be optimistic.
"The clamour for change is only getting more vocal," she opines. "And that ultimately means Indian women becoming safer."
* Name has been changed