As the world’s largest democracy, second most populous country and this year’s fastest growing economy, all eyes have been on India. But accompanying this impressive track record, India’s cities have also developed a reputation of being notoriously unsafe for women. Through a new app called Safecity, women across the country are relying on technology to stay safe and tackle systemic issues of violence, abuse and harassment in their communities.
Safecity’s aim is to create a “platform for people to share their personal stories of harassment and abuse in public spaces.”[i] To understand how it works, think TripAdvisor, but instead of rating last summer’s vacation, people rate different areas of their city for safety. Individuals self-report on the type of harassment they’ve experienced (or witnessed) and identify when and where these incidents occurred. Reported incidents range from catcalls to groping to rape.
Safecity is anonymous and free. It relies on self-reported, crowd-sourced data, which is aggregated to map out “hotspots” (areas where multiple incidents have been reported) and track trends. Data is collected through various mediums including a website[ii], social media platforms[iii], emails, texts and phone calls. Users can upload photos and videos, and sign up for alerts. The app encourages accountability by calling on both victims and witnesses to report crimes.
Inspiration & Intention
The idea came about when one of Safecity’s founders, Elsa Marie D’Silva, met the creator of HarassMap[iv], an app tackling sexual harassment in Egypt. The encounter was fresh in D’Silva’s mind when a young female student was brutally gang raped and beaten in D’Silva’s hometown of Delhi[v]. The girl eventually died from her injuries, and the attack triggered something within D’Silva. The app was launched just days later, in December 2012.
Sadly, this violent attack was not an isolated incident. According to government statistics, a woman in India is raped every 20 minutes. An incident of domestic violence is reported every five minutes. Over 309,546 crimes against women were reported in 2013, which is especially troubling considering that the majority of crimes against women go unreported in India, and are rarely discussed among family or friends.
Safecity’s founders realized that women in their communities were sharing similar experiences, and yet nobody was talking about them. Victim shaming, societal backlash, mistrust of the police and cultural stigma are all reasons why these crimes go unreported. Over time, unreported crimes allow perpetrators to grow bolder, and harassment in public spaces becomes normalized. But Safecity is changing that!
Safcity’s primary goal is to enhance safety, but its impact stretches beyond that. It generates awareness among the public and authorities about what’s happening in their communities. It empowers victims by providing them with a platform to speak to their experiences. Safecity hopes to break silence surrounding issues of violence in India by giving victims a united voice, and the data to back it. This model is shifting the focus away from the individual and drawing attention to large-scale trends. While holding individuals accountable remains important, Safecity is working towards holding institutions accountable, recognizing the need to address women’s rights on a broader community scale. The app is addressing citywide problems with city-specific solutions.
While it began as an online-only initiative, Safecity has grown to include an offline component as well. Safecity is running a series of complimentary campaigns and workshops in addition to reporting data. Since incidents are often unique to each region, solutions are unique as well.
The app’s success stories speak for themselves. One hotspot was identified at a tea stall in Delhi, after several users reported that men were leering at young girls. Cultural restrictions prevented girls from vocalizing their discomfort, so Safecity partnered with a local artist who painted a wall mural beside the tea stall. The mural portrayed starring eyes and a message, “Look with your heart and not your eyes.” The watchful eyes on the mural led to an immediate decline in reported incidents.
Elsewhere, a government official made funding available for the instillation of surveillance cameras at high-incident intersections. In another region, cases of early morning molestations were reportedly occurring while women were relieving themselves outdoors. Safecity presented their findings to authorities, who were pressured into opening and maintaining community toilets. Safecity then ran a workshop to teach women in the community how to use the facilities.
Safecity has gathered data from over 50 cities, documented over 5,500 stories, held over 4,000 workshops about sexual abuse awareness in cities across India, and amassed over 43,656 likes on Facebook. Data has been collected from cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Delhi, and its database is slowly expanding to places like Katmandu, the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Cameroon, and even London, New York and San Francisco. Authorities have noticed – many local police stations receive biweekly data files from Safecity and use these reports to inform their patrol strategies.
Safecity is an example of an exciting movement in India where technology is enhancing women’s safety. Safecity promotes a host of other mobile apps, including Nirbhaya: Be Fearless – which allows users to send distress signals and GPS coordinates to emergency contacts, Taxshe – an all female driver service, and KravMaga Chennai – which provides self-defense lessons. Apps like these are emerging across the globe, popping up in the Middle East, Africa and South America.
Each has a unique take on enhancing women’s safety in distinct cultural and geographic settings. This is good news for communities and women around the world, particularly for those in traditionally patriarchal societies where issues of gendered violence are being addressed publicly for the first time. Safecity is just one way people are using technology to make India a safer place for women – one city at a time.