Safecity encourages individuals and communities to report violations on its digital platform, to make the world a safer place for all.
People can report incidents of harassment on the Safecity app or by going to the program’s website. Photo courtesy Safecity
For many women, sexual harassment is constant risk in their daily lives. That is why social entrepreneur, ElsaMarie D’Silva, founded a digital platform called Safecity that collects reports of harassment and displays incidents on a map. D’Silva, the platform’s founding director, says she was inspired to act by the notorious rape and killing of Nirbhaya on a New Delhi bus in 2012. “After that incident, I felt I wanted to end violence against women and girls,” she says.
Safecity allows community organizations to advocate for improved security in places with high rates of harassment. The platform also sensitizes the public to a problem that is often hidden, as victims suffer assaults in silence. Since the launch of Safecity in 2012, about 35,000 incidents have been reported. The platform has been launched by partner organizations in Kenya, Nepal, Cameroon, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Trinidad and Tobago.
So how does it work? People can report incidents on the Safecity app or by going to the program’s website. Reporting is anonymous, but the app asks those reporting incidents to provide their age and gender, the time and date of the event, and to choose the type of incident from a dropdown menu of categories.
According to the platform’s website, “Sharing your experience helps us identify patterns and create safer spaces. Information is analyzed to engage our communities to find solutions and hold our civic and police officials accountable. ”
Safecity has had a number of successes in its decade of operations. For example, community groups have raised money to install closed-circuit cameras to monitor certain areas, have gotten street lighting improved and removed trees blocking lights. And they have used the data on harassment to convince local police to increase patrols in affected areas.
Safecity data was first used in the Bandra neighborhood of Mumbai. The area was plagued by chain snatching and robberies as well, and community leaders decided to confront both petty crimes and sexual harassment at the same time.
When the police were invited to community meetings, they initially said they were unaware of a problem, as they received very few complaints. D’Silva says that’s because victims often felt they had nothing to gain from going to the police. “People said, ‘I prefer to lose my gold chain than lose all that time with the police,’ ” says D’Silva.
But the pressure on the police paid off. “We found that when people get involved, then police take an interest, and the robbers stay away; they know they are being watched,” she says. Incidents decreased significantly.
Safecity, and the Red Dot Foundation, a nonprofit created to support it, put up large artwork on walls outside girls’ colleges and at busy intersections to raise awareness and change behavior. Photo courtesy Safecity
Safecity, and the Red Dot Foundation, a nonprofit created to support it, have taken other initiatives, including putting up large artwork on walls outside girls’ colleges and at busy intersections to raise awareness and change behavior. For instance, a large face with staring eyes is accompanied by the caption “Look with your heart” and an image of a woman being groped is accompanied by the message “Is this correct?”
Through events, workshops and discussions, Red Dot Foundation helps people understand how to make public and private spaces safer. At a cyber safety workshop in December 2021, in collaboration with Protsahan India Foundation, young women learned how to identify forms of online harassment, how to report online harassment and ways to use social media safely. The Safecity website notes feedback from participants on how they benefited from the activities during the workshop. “I did not have any idea about my digital rights. After the session, I feel like these lessons will help me in my personal growth and will open many doors of opportunities,” says Tabbassum. Another participant, Sabina, says, “I did not have enough knowledge about crimes that take place in the cyber world, but after the session and activities, I feel like I know better now.”
At another initiative, in Satara, Maharashtra, the Red Dot Foundation trained school and college students to reach out to other students and people of their community to spread awareness on child safety and build safe campuses. Training sessions included topics like sexual harassment, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act), mental health, social media use and self defense. “I used to feel shy and fearful when I had to get out of home for anything. Frequent news of rapes had instilled fear in me about my safety. It lowered my self-confidence also. During the past few months, since I got connected with the Safe Campus project, I can say that I have changed. Now I am less scared of going out because I know my rights and I am aware about harassment,” says Yogita Kharade in a testimonial on the Safecity website.
Before founding Safecity, D’Silva spent 20 years in the aviation sector, ending as vice president for network planning for Kingfisher Airlines. She says that she funded the platform out of her own pocket for its first two years. Now support comes mainly from international funders, including Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Vital Voices NGO and the U.S. Embassy in Delhi.
In 2016, D’Silva participated in the Fortune-U.S. Department of State Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, spending six weeks in the United States being mentored by Sandra (Sandi) E. Peterson, then-Group Worldwide Chairman for Johnson & Johnson. “I learned a lot from my time with Johnson & Johnson,” she says, including “how do you create an organization that withstands the test of time even if it’s a nonprofit, under-resourced NGO.”
Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.