Examples of similar indecent behavior abound from all around India. For women, going outside is often a nightmare: it exposes them to men’s comments, catcalling, harassment, and even abuse.
“While traveling in the bus, the man standing behind me was trying to touch me.”
According to the Crime Record Bureau, a sexual assault occurs every three minutes throughout the country; and every 20 minutes, a woman is raped. How frightening these figures are, they are largely underestimated. For decades, many victims have had no choice but to remain silent. Even now, 80 percent of them have never been to the police. They fear retaliation; or they believe the authorities will not deal with their complaint.
Mentalities are changing
It took a tragic incident in New Delhi for the mentalities to start changing. On December 16th, 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year old physiotherapist intern, went to the movie with her boyfriend. On their way back home, it was dark already, and six men attacked them. The man was beaten; the girl was gang raped. She never recovered from her injuries, and two weeks after her ordeal, she passed away.
This tragedy shocked the collective conscious of India. In the following days, thousands of people took to the street to protest against what some call an epidemic of rape and sexual abuse.
Else, Surya, Saloni, and Aditya — four young social entrepreneurs — were outraged too. Soon, they wanted to act, and they suggested to tackle the issue using a crowdsourcing model. They had heard of the HarassMap initiative in Egypt, and they agreed to develop a similar project in India.SafeCity was born.
Breaking the women’s silence
SafeCity’s top priority is to break the victim’s silence. A culture of quiet acceptance has expanded over the years in India, and it has created a vicious circle. Too often, the perpetrators never get prosecuted, which increases a sense of impunity amongst them. After a while, some tend to move on from indecent behavior to sexual assault. That’s why SafeCity aims at encouraging women to share their personal stories, at least on the Internet.
Else and her friends have designed an easy-to-use platform, and the victims don’t even have to reveal their name. For sure, anonymity makes it difficult to verify the testimonies; on the other hand, it helps the women to speak out. And it has been effective. Since the website was launched in December 2012, more than 3,500 people have reported experiences of sexual violence in the public space. This includes: verbal comments (1,847 stories), touching/grouping (1,109), sexual invites (300), and rape/assault (83).
The only requirement for the user is to enter the time and exact location of the incident. The data are, then, aggregated to highlight local trends and map the unsafe areas. This enables women to check the safety rating of their destination before deciding to go there.
SafeCity’s founders claim that this is critical, as harassers and abusers tend to stay in their “comfort zone.” For example, in April 2013, a photojournalist was gang raped in an isolated compound in Mumbai. It turned out that the group had already perpetrated four rapes at the same place. Had the victims reported these crimes, the girl’s employer would have probably not sent her on an assignment there.
What is more, the administration or the community could have taken action. To induce the local authorities to do something, SafeCity’s founders have tried to involve them as much as possible. In Bandra, Else collected several stories of sexual violence in a 10-street area. After she showed them to the local police, they responded by changing patrol times. They also had the street lighting repaired and CCTV cameras installed in key locations.
A first step towards positive change
Of course, some could say this initiative is a drop in the ocean. In India, only 130 million people have access to the Internet, and in the countryside, the penetration rate is low.
Well aware of this digital divide, the founders of SafeCity have, thus, taken action at various levels. They launched an awareness campaign in Mumbai and Delhi and organized workshops in universities. In the near future, they plan to enable women without Internet access to report incidents using their mobile phone.
For sure, SafeCity will not put an immediate end to the issue of sexual harassment and abuse on the streets of India. But if women start speaking out, we can hope the change will come.At last.