Meet Elsa D’Silva, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Safecity, an NGO based in India which helps make the streets safer for girls and women by documenting sexual violence in public spaces.
Who is Elsa DSilva? We know her around Impact Hub as one of 8 amazing participants in the SE Forum Outreach Accelerator Program, selected out of hundreds of applicants from around the world to get help scaling her organization. When I first heard her story, about the mission behind Safecity, it gave me goose bumps. I sat down with her to learn more.
Q: Can you tell me about Safecity? What is the goal of your organization?
UN Women statistics highlight that 1 in 3 woman around the world experience sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. This number is much higher in India (up to 100%), and unfortunately not many women talk about it or report it officially. This has led to a situation where the official statistics do not reflect the true nature and size of the problem, thus making it ”invisible”.
We thought, why not create a platform for women where they can share their experiences anonymously. This makes it easier for them to talk about it. It also helps to read other people’s stories, which gives them the courage to break their own silence.
Through this reporting, we collate the information and highlight location-based trends, which is then visualized on a map. It gives people information that they can then use for their own safety—whether it means being more alert, taking a different route, or even getting their neighbors to help put pressure on the police for increased patrolling.
The goal of Safecity is to use technology, and crowd sourced data based on personal experiences to make public spaces safer and equally accessible to all— especially women and girls.
Q: Have you seen any changes already?
We have two cases where we went to the police with the data collected. In one case the police responded by increasing their patrol in an area of Mumbai where there were occurrences of gold chain snatching from women. Another case is an area in Delhi where women were being molested when they went to the forest to relieve themselves as there was no access to toilets. So the municipal authorities opened the toilets.
In a third case there were occurrences of men staring at women passing by a tea stall. The women said it was quite unpleasant for them to be stared at so intensely. So we painted staring eyes on the wall by the tea stall with writing in Hindi saying: “Don’t stare with your eyes, look with your heart.” The eyes made the men feel stared upon, so they eventually stopped staring at the women.
Q: Do you have a specific target group in mind?
Our target group is women, but we work also with boys to discuss sex, gender, and relationships— since there is no sex education in India. It is their first open discussion about how the other person feels. Hopefully, we will change their attitudes and behavior in the future; make them more conscious of the biases and stereotypes.
Q: Why did you start doing this? Where did your inspiration come from?
I have experienced several occasions of sexual harassment in public spaces myself, such as groping. There was also a big rape case in 2012 when a girl was gang raped, beaten, thrown out of a moving bus and left to die. Everyone started talking about this case, and slowly I found out that all my female friends have experienced various forms of sexual abuse— yet we have never spoken about it or confronted the perpetrator. So I decided it was time to do something about it. I was no longer prepared to stay silent and accept it as part of our “normal” life.
Q: What did the beginning look like?
We put together an online platform where people could share their stories. But we found it is not that easy so we began running workshops and on-the-ground campaigns to raise awareness on the issue, including legal rights. We also educated women on how mapping works, showing them how it can be used for their own safety and the safety of others.
Q: How do you secure funding for your organization?
We run Sexual Harassment and Awareness workshops which fund our organization. There is a new law in India about Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, obligating companies to invest in workshops like ours.
The organization consists of three people—me and two full time members, one in Delhi and one in Mumbai. We work with a lot of volunteers as well. We even have men helping us with tech and communication skills.
Q: What have you learned in the process? Any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My tip is to have patience. In the development sector things take time. Funding takes time, for example, so make sure you have an alternative income stream. Partnerships take time, since it’s about building trust. Change takes time, because you are talking changes of attitudes and behaviors, which don’t actually change overnight.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
We are coming up with a mobile app which will make the reporting and data more accessible to the public. Hopefully that will get more people on board regarding the issue. It should be ready by the end of June and we are planning to toll it out through our network—partners, companies, colleges.
Q: Why the Outreach Accelerator program? What have you learned so far?
The accelerator program is a chance for us to reflect on all that we have achieved so far and plan the scale-up of our organization in the future. This week, for example, we learned about Social Impact Metrics and I think it is the most important thing we have learned so far. And the mentors are really brilliant.
Impact Hub is also such a cool place to be—it stimulates your creativity and you meet such interesting people who, contributing with their unique perspectives, can help you make improvements to your organization.