A couple of weeks ago, a young woman was brutally gang-raped on her way to work in Rohtak, Haryana, by a jilted lover and his friends. It is reminiscent of the violent gang-rape in 2012 of a young woman named Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi when she was returning home from the cinema. Both women suffered terrible physical injuries as well as mental and emotional trauma. Sadly, both women later succumbed to their injuries.
Their stories highlight the unfortunate reality that women and girls are not safe in public spaces. In its judgement upholding the death penalty for those convicted for raping and murdering Singh, the Indian Supreme Court called the Singh case the “rarest of rare” to justify the penalty, a category that allows for death penalty or life imprisonment as punishment for crime.
In my opinion, these kinds of cases are not rare. In fact, many such cases never come to light because of the shame and taboo involved.
Sexual violence is a global pandemic affecting one in three women at least once in their lifetime. The statistics in India are equally shocking. National Crime Records Bureau statistics of 2014 indicate that a rape occurs every 20 minutes in India. According to a UN Women-supported ICRW survey (2013), 95% of women and girls reported feeling unsafe in public spaces in Delhi whilst nearly 75 percent of women and girls surveyed said they had faced sexual violence in their own neighbourhoods.
I am a co-founder of an organisation called Safecity that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. Since 2013, we have collected over 10,000 stories of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence. These stories include stalking, masturbation on public transport, and groping in crowded areas like railway platforms and overhead bridges.
The idea for Safecity, was born as a response to the horrific gang-rape of Singh in December 2012. My co-founders and I wanted to create a platform for anyone to share their personal experiences of being sexually harassed in a public space. This information is collated as location-based trends and visualised on a map as hotspots. The idea is to make it easier for people to report incidents anonymously and to help them make more informed choices about their own safety or to mobilise their communities to find local neighbourhood solutions and drive accountability amongst the police or municipal authorities.
As a woman in India, I have experienced being groped in public transport and seeing men masturbate in front of me on buses several times. At my prior workplace, senior managers have propositioned me. It was very difficult for me to speak up about what I experienced. In some cases, I extracted myself from the situation very quickly and tried to forget it as much as possible, and in other situations, I chose to ignore the harassment. But after the Singh incident, I decided to make a conscious choice to work towards breaking the silence around the issue. This meant that I had to share my own experiences and break my own silence.
Since I began speaking out, I have realised I am not alone in how I dealt with what I experienced. There are so many people who are afraid of bringing shame to themselves and their families, afraid that their choices and mobility will be further restricted if they tell their family members, or that, somehow, the blame will circle right back at them and on to what they wore, what they said, at what time of day they were in that space, or who they were with.
In the course of working on Safecity, I see the Internet as a powerful channel to connect us to each other and help us address these issues in innovative ways that were not earlier available. For example, based on the data that Safecity has collected in Delhi, I know that if I were to alight from the metro at Kailash Colony station, my journey would be much more hassle-free than if I were to get off at Nehru Place, which is a hotspot of harassment reports and is much more crowded.
Crowdsourced data helps us understand patterns and trends based on people’s historical experiences. We can design interventions that have a localised impact. For instance, our partner organisation in Kibera, Nairobi, noticed that one of the hotspots where girls reported being groped on their way to school was near a local mosque. They invited the Imam of the mosque to a meeting and presented the data to him. He decided to use his sermons to educate the young men of the community about appropriate behaviour, and this greatly helped in bringing down instances of sexual harassment in the area.
We have several examples across countries, cities and income levels where our data sets have been used to convince the police to increase vigilance or to change beat patrol timings, persuade municipal authorities to fix street lights and make safe and clean public toilets available, as well as compel elected representatives to make budgets available for CCTV cameras in key locations identified by residents as hotspots.
This new data set also helped our partner in Nepal convince transportation authorities to issue women-only bus licenses so that an alternate safe and hassle-free option could be made available. Looking at the issue from a location perspective helps identify factors that contribute to sexual violence and brings people together to discuss solutions that are easily implementable and practical.
Often, men and boys do not know how to behave appropriately, just like women and girls are unaware of their rights or of the relevant legislation. At various hotspots such as by a girls’ college in Mumbai, outside a public toilet in Dakshinpuri area in Delhi, and near a tea stall in LalKuan area in Delhi, we have used art to educate and to convey messages that staring, groping, taking pictures without permission, and sexual assault are criminal behaviours and not appropriate. The immediate change in behaviour and attitude in the community has given confidence to the young women, and many returned to school, accessed a wider range of public spaces, and also stayed out later than they otherwise would have.
Changing cultures of harassment is partly about changing policies, but it’s also about giving people a voice. Crowdsourced data, partnerships, trainings, and workshops are a large part of our work at Safecity. The Internet allows us to do it with ease and from the comfort of our homes. And with it we empower individuals to not just share their story but to also listen to others and to act.
Cover image courtesy of Safecity