As India’s cities struggle to turn the tables on rape and sexual assault, a new app allows women to share their stories of harassment and actively address abusive behaviour in their neighbourhoods
I was touched at rush hour at the busy Andheri Station. A person passing my rickshaw simply touched my breast and ran away while I sat disgusted and dumbfounded in the rickshaw at a signal. I couldn’t even see his face and don’t even know whom to hate more – him or my timing for being there at that point. (Andheri West)
The Safecity app lets women share their stories of harassment and abuse in public spaces in cities. Elsa D’Silva, one of its founders, says that women can use it to report “what happened, where it happened and when it happened”.
D’Silva started to form the idea for Safecity during a visit to Sweden where, having recently begun working on women’s issues following 20 years in the aviation industry, she met the founders of HarassMap – a project that, among other things, uses online and mobile technology to work towards ending sexual harassment and assault in Egypt. Shortly after D’Silva returned home to Delhi, the now infamous gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student on a Delhi bus took place.
That rape changed something for D’Silva, and for many other Indian people. She says: “That was when everything lined up and I said to myself: Safety and security need to be urgently addressed. Until then, not many of us were even talking about it actively or openly enough, including me. It was that rape that really got me thinking more actively … And then I started to remember the various incidents that had taken place in my own life.” Her personal silence broken, D’Silva began to talk to friends: “I realised that every one of them had a story to share, but until then we had never really spoken about it.”
And so, inspired to act, in December 2012 D’Silva set up Safecity. It was initially conceived as an online-only platform, but the founders soon decided that they needed to take their efforts offline as well: “We go into the communities and do workshops and campaigns where we target people who have been involved with either a community based group or another NGO. Then we collect information, analyse it and find trends, and then find solutions. For each place it’s different.”
There was another incident, on 1 Jan 2013, in Malad West, near Liberty Garden. Less than a month previously, the horrible Delhi rape case had happened. As I was walking down the street to buy something from the local shop, a really old man looked at me and made a disturbing gesture. He shook his head from side to side, which meant he would like to put his face between my breasts and do that. When I said, ’What the hell?’ he just smirked. It was just the first day of the year. (Malad)
D’Silva talks about the importance of identifying hotspots of harassment within cities, and then working with local partners to find solutions to fit those neighbourhood contexts. In Delhi, they identified one hotspot by a tea stall: “Men would loiter and intimidate women with their constant gazing. We asked the young girls what they would like to change … in our culture you can’t go to a man and say, ‘This is intimidating, please stop.’” They partnered with a local artist who painted an entire wall right next to the tea stand “with staring eyes and subtle messaging that loosely translates as ‘Look with your heart and not with your eyes.’” Since it was painted last December, D’Silva asserts that the situation has greatly improved.
In another nearby hotspot, an entirely different solution was needed: “We identified that women were being molested when relieving themselves in the open either first-thing in the morning or late in the evening because of no access to the toilets.” When Safecity investigated, D’Silva realised that “actually there are toilets, but they were under lock and key because the municipal authorities do not want to clean them. So, armed with the data, we went to the relevant authorities and pressured them to open the toilets and maintain them as well. They started doing that, and, through our community partner in that space, we then had to educate the women about the toilet being available.”
Data is key, D’Silva says – not only to pinpoint issues but also to force solutions. “You can hold institutions accountable, be they school authorities, or college authorities, municipal police or transport authorities.” Of course, this all depends on authorities being receptive. Their receptivity is, she says, helped by the threat of being called out online: “Where you have social media, I think everyone’s going to be on their toes if you have evidence. It’s hard to ignore crowd-sourced information. Yes, it’s unverified, but when there’s a larger trend that’s emerging, how can you dispute that?”
By feeding online personal reports, as well as data gathered through more traditional pen-and-pencil safety audits returned to the municipal authorities, Safecity aims to achieve concrete changes fitting each individual urban context; breaking cycles of harassment as well as allowing catharsis for individual victims.
“I was wearing a skirt and was boarding the local train. Some guy stuck his hand under my skirt and held my bum. I grabbed his hand and pulled it off. The train was crowded so I couldn’t find the perpetrator. (Borivali)
Safecity is one of a growing number of apps aiming to tackle women’s safety in Indian cities. Carolyn Whitzman, professor in urban planning at the University of Melbourne and lead editor of Building Inclusive Cities: Women’s Safety and the Right to the City holds, that “feminists in Indian cities – urban feminists – are at the forefront of using tech to create change”.
Kalpana Viswanath is one of the founders of Safetipin, an app that similarly allows you to report harassment and feelings of threat in and around the city. It also has a tracker function that allows you to “track loved ones to know they are safe”. Viswanath explains how Safetipin grew the opposite way from Safecity – offline to online. It was the result of the Safe Delhi campaign, launched in 2004 by the NGO Jagori, which carried out citywide safety audits in partnership with UN Habitat and UN Women. The aim of the campaign, according Viswanath, was to “move discourse of women’s safety out of a narrow, traditional set of stakeholders – women’s groups and women – and to get it looked at by transport planners and urban planners; to get a range of urban stakeholders to begin to look at women’s safety.”
Whichever way they grew, Whitzman sees these apps as having their roots in the more traditional safety audits that started “in the global north, in places like London municipalities before going to cities such as Montreal and Toronto”. But there has been a change, she says. “They’ve gotten so much more interesting since they’ve gone to India, Africa, South America, because they’ve cross-fertilised with some really interesting ideas about the right to the city.”
A guy was yelling and physically assaulting a girl on the road at 1pm. I had to go downstairs and intervene to stop it. I told him that I would report him if he didn’t stop. What was horrid was that people were watching it happen and no one stopped it. One man yelled from his home on the second floor that he would call the police, but that was all. This kind of apathy is quite scary.” (Andheri West)
So far, Safecity has had reports from more than 50 Indian cities, including Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi, as well as the Nepalese city of Kathmandu. They also have (tiny) datasets from the Kibera slum area of Nairobi and from Cameroon, as well as some reports from London, New York and San Francisco. But to go beyond the safety audit function and start trying to effect concrete changes such as those seen in Indian cities, D’Silva says they would need “a partner on the ground in those places because it’s important for them to get a more detailed dataset” and to take a lead in advocating solutions that suit each local context. Safetipin has partnerships in Jakarta, Nairobi and Bogota.
As D’Silva points out, violence against women in cities is a global pandemic, with India often unhelpfully held up as its poster child, and there’s no reason why apps such as Safecity and Safetipin shouldn’t work in other cities around the world. There are similar safety apps already up and running in other cities; in the Middle East, for instance, as well as HarassMap in Egypt, there is Ramallah Street Watch, Safe Streets Yemen, and Resist Harassment Lebanon.
D’Silva sees another function of these safety apps to work as a kind of TripAdvisor, rating areas of cities for safety and allowing individuals to make informed decisions about personal safety. For example, she says, before a recent trip to San Francisco, she was looking for accommodation: “A lady wrote, ‘If you finally book this accommodation, please don’t take the metro station which is the closest, take the one before or the one after. The walk may be slightly longer, but it’s safer.’ Those are the kind of intelligences that I would like to capture with Safecity,” D’Silva says. “We may say that the police and the government are responsible, but we have to take our own precautions.”
There is one sentiment echoed by all the visually challenged women: we feel unsafe while travelling in the handicapped compartments of local trains, when men often try to touch us inappropriately. We are glad that, at least on this website, we can express our bad feeling towards this sexual harassment that we face almost every day when we travel in local trains of Mumbai. (Bhandup)
But might this not lead to the demonisation of certain areas of cities? “We don’t want to brand neighbourhoods as safe or unsafe,” stresses D’Silva, “but wouldn’t it be better if you were to be able to understand the issues that each neighbourhood faces?” This way individuals can make informed decisions about their own safety, but by feeding collective data back to relevant stakeholders, the app can work towards making all neighbourhoods safer.
Whitzman sees the development of safety apps as part of a trend for apps used by citizens to get involved in “improving the city and making public space more accessible for everyone”. Using technology to map everything from the trivial – such as a good area to park your bike or get a coffee – to the potentially life-saving, such as mapping harassment, offers “a form of participatory democracy; being engaged in your city and not just being frustrated if there’s a poorly accessible footpath, but actually taking action on it.”
Whitzman adds: “I think that women’s safety is vitally important, obviously, but I think it’s part of that larger argument about the right to the city and I think it’s part of a larger move of people saying: ‘This is my space, I’m capable of mapping it and asking for these changes to happen.’”