“To stop the violence we use the power of data”


Marion Kraske, political scientist and publisher, spoke with Elsa Marie D'Silva, Activist & Co-Founder of Safecity, a web platform tackling Gender Based Violence (GBV)

BÖLL: According to data released by the government, in 2021 India recorded the highest number of crimes against women ever. Where do you see the origins of this widespread violence?

D´SilvaIndia is truly a contradiction. On the one hand, a lot of women are rising into powerful positions - but on the other hand, if you dive into statistics, if you see the gender gap index, or the crime statistics, then you see that India is pretty much low on the list. Every 15 minutes a woman is raped. According to a recent survey, 75 percent of women and men find it acceptable that women are beaten up by their husbands. If violence is acceptable at home, then it translates automatically into public spaces, the workspace, streets, public transports, etc. This violence is happening on a daily basis, and it creates a culture of insecurity, and a culture that perpetuates the violence for a long period of time. 


BÖLL: You co-founded Safecity (https://www.safecity.in/), a platform that crowdmaps sexual harassment in public spaces in several countries. It is real pioneer work addressing this issue. What was the main intention behind establishing such a tool?

D´Silva: Our idea was to make sure that people can see the everyday violence. We know that it is happening. But it was not visible enough. So we launched Safecity in Dec. 2012, a documentation of anonymous stories of sexual and GBV as an immediate reaction to the horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. We wanted to give a space to survivors to document their incidents. 90 percent or more of our reportees have said that they didn´t go to the police – and that they don´t intend to go there. So we established a platform to give them a voice. 


BÖLL: Why do they not report the violence - because of a lack of trust in the institutions? 

D´Silva: It is a combination of low trust in systems - especially in the police and the judicial system, as it can take up to 20 years for a case to be solved, but more importantly the social and cultural environment we live in: It´s still taboo to talk about these things, and this is linked to honor. The general idea is that you bring shame and dishonor to your family if you experience violence. The blame is often on the survivor: Why were you at that place? What did you do to make that happen? It's always the woman's fault. As a result, a lot of women don't want to go to the police and talk about it. And many young women who have the courage and who are willing to talk about their experiences are stopped from reporting, especially when they are not married. Their parents are afraid that they might not get a suitable person to marry or a good family to marry into because of the sex crimes. 


BÖLL: What are the concrete achievements of Safecity? Why is reporting so important? 

D´Silva: The main achievement is that we managed to make the violence visible. We are the largest tool with personal stories to give survivors the ability to share what happened to them – which is critical for their own healing process of that traumatic experience. Very often it´s the first time that they have said what happened. Ssometimes they speak out only 20 years later. The second achievement is that we made the data available, so that individuals and communities can use it to advocate for their own safety, and to demand for a better infrastructure or better institutional accountability. For example, they have advocated for greater police patrolling or increased patrolling at a particular time. This means that we use the power of data to advocate for concrete solutions. It´s about education and informing the larger community what happened. Partly, we also got the religious leaders involved. When the authorities step in, then everybody pays attention. If you can convince people in power, especially men, to take a stand - then it sends a message down the line that violence is not acceptable. 


BÖLL: Do you have strategic partners in politics?

D´Silva: We did not focus on a top-down-approach, because if the person in power changes, then often the collaboration is shelved. We took the other approach of mainly working with grassroot organisations, while on the institutional level also going top-down. With this approach, we gave power back to the community through the data from the survivors. We share the data with five police forces. Additionally, we are working very closely with one major railway line in Mumbai and we have a cooperation with 300 educational institutions. Women and girls are our entry point, but on college campuses we work with young people in general and the third element of our engagement is boys and men. We have to make clear: Women are not the problem for the violence, but the societal culture that enables the violence is the problem. We need men and boys and larger society to be more actively engaged so that there can be a change. As a matter of fact, a lot of them are happy to be part of the solution.   


BÖLL: Rape is a worldwide problem. In India more than 31.000 cases were documented for 2021. Besides the violence, there is a trend that people are just watching instead of providing support to the victims. What are the reasons and how can one tackle the problem? 

D´Silva: This is a worldwide trend: We find this everywhere, in the US or in other countries. Firstly, we live in a world where everything is “Instagramable” - people watch, and want to document what they see. But they fail to call the police, which should happen as a first step. Then you can document it. Sometimes people are afraid to intervene, and sometimes they don´t know whether it is their responsibility. In a lot of cases people dont know how to stop the violence. Therefore, we need a law to make support to the victims of violence obligatory. Besides that, there are several ways to interrupt the violence: Distract the perpetrator, try a diversion. In cases of domestic violence you can ring the doorbell and send the message: Hey, we are here, we are listening what is happening! We need more trainings for bystander interventions and clear public service announcements: Visible signs that clearly say: If you are witnessing any kind of violence react immediately! All in all it´s a matter of education: Building the confidence of the people to intervene. And building the confidence of the victims to raise their voice, to make clear: It´s my right to speak up!


BÖLL: According to a recent report by Amnesty International there are currently more than 640 million child marriages documented worldwide. How do you evaluate the situation in India?

D´Silva: We recently had the case of an 11 year-old-girl that was married to an elderly man because her family had a debt. Under Indian law, this is a crime. How is it possible then? It is a problem when the majority of the society turns a blind eye to these problems. Under the constitution, everybody is equal. In reality, women are not valued equally. A lot of families don´t have enough money, and they think that a marriage ends their responsibility for the girls. They think that a marriage is the best for their child. We always come back to the fact that girls are perceived as property. I can sell them, traffic them, treat them without respect. Again, the key is education: We provide the girls with negotiation skills so that they can bargain with their parents: Give me one more year, so that I can study. Then one additional year – and so on. In this sense, with our mentoring program we are extending the freedom of these girls. If we are able to change this one generation, they will have a better outlook as parents in the future – this is where the change gets sustainable.


BÖLL: For your outstanding work you got many awards. UN-Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed the fact that you managed to mobilise thousands of young people around the world to break the silence to end gender-based violence. Which networks or organisations worldwide should receive more financial and organizational support to fight GBV more effectively?

D´Silva: All grassroot organisations all over the world need that support. Gender based violence is still a taboo topic, even for donors and funders. They don´t think that it´s important to invest in the education of people. They don´t understand the spectrum of violence, or the social, cultural context of GBV. So education is absolutely necessary, and we need to invest in education at a very basic level. Surprisingly, in India where there are laws for everything, people are not aware of their rights. We need to support institutions to have, for example, more public service announcements – comparable to the anti-smoking-campaigns. 20 years ago smoking in public was very acceptable. And we have been able to change it through massive advertising and education. Same happened with Polio. With the same approach we can solve gender-based violence too. In a broader sense it is also a pandemic. Even men are affected by violence against women and girls -  so it´s in everybody´s interest to solve this problem in a more strategic way. 


BÖLL: The German government promotes a feminist foreign policy. What is your view on that? 

D´Silva: I think it is a great move by Germany, and they can set a standard of how feminist foreign policy can benefit not only Germany, but also other countries. During the last G7 summit when Germany held the presidency, they sent a call out around the world asking for advisors from the Global South. I applied and I got selected. To me that is sharing power: Even if your country is not part of G7 they took the inputs and gave us the chance to advise them. And it was done so beautifully, I really was impressed. If you create spaces like this and give opportunities to give inputs and incorporate these suggestions – I think this is a profound step into the right direction. 


BÖLL: What were your main requests? 

D´Silva: I was part of the subcommittee for violence against girls and women. We asked for the unblocking of economic resources, to put this money into a fund with the aim to boost education and other resources – as I said before, this is the most crucial thing. We suggested two percent of the GDP of these countries. Then we need investments in infrastructure for survivors – there is just not enough of it. Additionally we stressed the importance of implementing laws. Besides that, we have to work on laws where there are none – many countries don´t have these kinds of laws. Last but not least we need: Acknowledgment of the very fact that this kind of violence exists and is of epidemic proportions. This is critical in finding solutions. 

BÖLL: Mrs D´Silva, many thanks for the inspiring talk.

This article first appeared here: www.boell.de