Elsa Marie D’Silva: Creating awareness on street harassment & abuse

According to UN Women, around 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. In around 30 countries, at least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. Sadly, in India, women have faced significant violations of their human rights for centuries. From sexual assault and domestic violence to forced labor and denial of educational opportunities, the struggle for rights is a disheartening process for Indian women. Women’s rights are extremely important if a nation needs to move forward and prosper. There are several women’s rights organizations which are fighting for the cause of supporting women’s rights; however this 2012 born company – Safecity not only creates awareness on public space harassment and abuse but also get women and other disadvantaged communities to break their silence and report their personal experiences.
Incepted by Elsa Marie D’Silva, Safecity, a not for profit entity registered as Red Dot Foundation, is an online platform that crowd sources personal stories on Sexual Harassment and abuse in public spaces. The data gets aggregated as hot spots on a map indicating trends at a local level. The idea is to make this data useful for individuals, local communities and local administration to identify factors that cause behavior that leads to violence and work on strategies for solutions. Since their launch the company has collected over 11,000 stories from India and other countrieswhich has been used to engage over 500,000 people.
The company stands tall in encouraging people to report their stories through their mobile app on Android and iOS, webapp and social media. Elsa Marie D’Silva shares, “We are creating a new data set which currently does not exist. Perception of the police’s insensitivity as well as cultural backlash deters people from reporting. They feel more comfortable using our platform and this is seen by reports from over 20 years ago. By representing the information thus collected on a map as hotspots, we are moving the focus away from the “victim” to the location and people can view the issue with a different lens. Today we make choices for pretty much everything based on reviews – books, movies, restaurants, hotels but we have nothing for personal safety.” The organisation also does awareness workshops and advocacy campaigns in schools, colleges, communities and corporates.
Safecity’s main target audiences are women/girls who are victims of sexual harassment due to a patriarchal culture. If they can share their stories, learn that they are not alone as “victims”, feel empowered to stand up for them and confront the perpetrator, then the job is almost done. She asserts, “We are creating a new data set which currently does not exist. Perception of the police’s insensitivity as well as cultural backlash deters people from reporting. They feel more comfortable using our platform and this is seen by reports from over 20 years ago. By representing the information thus collected on a map as hotspots, we are moving the focus away from the “victim” to the location and people can view the issue with a different lens.”People can sign up for alerts either based on location or category of harassment. This allows people to understand the “safety” landscape of an area and make the most informed decision for themselves. e.g. They can decide on time of visit, method of transport to use, if they need to be accompanied by someone or even what clothes to wear.

Risk-taking is almost synonymous with entrepreneurship. To start and support your business, you will have to put your career, personal finances and even your mental health at stake. Talking about the risk D’Silva has taken, she says, “Leaving my comfortable corporate job and venturing into the unknown was a big deal for me. I didn’t have any background in the women’s movement or the development sector. So initially I had to be humble and patient, learning everything from the basics, recreating my networks and building my personal and organisational credibility. Growing businesses face array of challenges. As a business grows, different problems demand different solutions. D’Silva says that she goes through challenges like everyone else but she always stays focused on her mission and personal values. “I have always been adventurous, testing my boundaries, pushing my limits and trying out new things. If I look back on my career in aviation which spanned close to 20 years, I always took up a challenge, taking up new roles and opportunities. So in a way, it prepared me to make the career switch when I was called upon to do this work. Setting up my own organization, making it a world class one and setting standards for others to follow has been a great inspiring journey in itself,” she adds.
Family is super critical in providing you with support to fulfill your dreams. Life is never easy and an entrepreneur’s life is even tougher. So you need a support system that will nurture you when things are tough, money is scarce, everything around you is falling apart and no one believes in you. D’Silva continues, “I constantly do a check if I am living my life true to my values and if I am, I continue on the path ahead to achieve my vision. I also surround myself with positive people who inspire and motivate me. My family is my rock constantly giving me the energy and support I need. My team including my partner Supreet are fabulous and they compliment my skills and constantly boost up my motivation.”
The organization has come a long way since the December 2012 Nirbhaya incident. The conversations on sexual violence have increased and currently it is the hottest topic with #MeToo and #TimesUp. D’Silva says she is glad to be part of the aforementioned revolution. Also the use of crowdsourced data as a valid data set is gaining acceptance. She shares, “I am super charged with all the possibilities ahead of us – getting gender awareness into the policy making, ensuring gender equality at the decision making tables and creating safe spaces for all to flourish and achieve their potential.”
Being a born leader/builder, she advises upcoming women entrepreneurs to be bold and fearless. There is nothing you cannot do. Create your networks and ecosystems of support, be honest and seek help when needed, always do the right thing and live true to your values and always make space for more female leaders. Under D’Silva’s leadership, the company has grown in leaps and bound as her leadership style is very liberal. “I give a lot of autonomy and freedom to design one’s role and execute projects. I ensure my team has a work life balance and I encourage it. We have a flat hierarchy so it is easier to grow and also learn. Most of my team has worked with me in the past in the aviation industry or as volunteers at Safecity before joining the organisation formally. I hope they believe they are part of this organisation and have a future with it. As a business owner, I have to provide a fair, safe and secure environment for everyone to work in and achieve their potential,” D’Silva concludes.

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