The Delhi rape in early December 2012 shook women across India to our core. I decided right then and there that the time had come to help break the silence surrounding pervasive sexual harassment and abuse in my country.
On 26 December 2012, Saloni Malhotra, Surya Velamuri and I decided to launch an online platform, Safecity, where women could share their personal experiences of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. This was important as most women we knew, including ourselves, had experienced instances of harassment in different settings but never felt empowered to talk about it. As a result, we contributed to the culture of keeping silent.
Through Safecity, a crowdmap, individuals anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment and assault. The stories are then plotted on a map and data is aggregated as hot spots, indicating trends at a local level. Using this methodology, the focus is taken away from the individual victim-many of whom are not comfortable coming forward publicly-and instead we can focus on solving the problem at the neighborhood level which may be useful for individuals, communities and local government.
To date, we have collected more than 4,000 stories from over 50 cities across India and have conducted workshops for different demographics of people. Each story makes my resolve to continue working on the issue stronger because I know that we are empowering participants to become more confident through education about rights and laws; creation of a platform to break their silence; and connections with others on the issue so they know they are not alone.
We have had many successes in the last two years, but the biggest such moments are when someone reaches out to share their sexual harassment experience for the first time. At one recent workshop, a nine-year-old girl shared, “I now know that I did not do anything wrong, so I will go home and tell my mother.” This was after she had recounted how she was abused by her uncle and had not spoken about it.
To me it is humbling that the Safecity model helps victims break their silence. We started Safecity primarily as an online platform, but found that even if people have access to the internet, it is not easy to share personal stories even anonymously. We began workshops and designed them for the needs of each target group. Today, we have a menu of workshops for men, women, boys and girls in the community.
Engaging men and boys in the conversation is extremely important because if we wish to see true change, the entire society has to reject certain cultural biases, stereotypes and attitudes. When we do joint workshops, what emerges is very fascinating because each person, irrespective of sex, views the same problem differently. A lot of biases are challenged and participants go away with a small seed of change planted in their minds.