Keeping women safe with Elsa Marie D’Silva

Read the Transscript of TUMI Podcast Talking Transport Transformation episode 5: Keeping women safe with Elsa Marie D’Silva

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Intro:

Hi everyone welcome back to TTT-  the talking transport transformation podcast. Brought to you by TUMI, the transformative urban mobility initiative. In today’s episode we will have a look at women’s safety in public spaces. To get some deeper insights into this topic we invited Elsa Marie D’Silva into our virtual open street. Elsa Marie is the founder of red dot Foundation and president of safe city which is a platform that documents sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. She is responsible for the strategic vision of the organization business development and public relations. Under her guidance and leadership safe city has become the largest crowd map on the issue in India, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria and Nepal. My colleague Sophia is going to have a chat with Elsa Marie about her work on improving the safety for women in transport and public spaces. The effects of COVID 19 for women in transport and success factors for cities to become more gender friendly. We are very glad to now hear from the two of you. Over to you Sophia:

Sophia:

So hi and welcome to the TUMI Talking Transport Transformation podcast this week with me Sophia Sünder and Elsa Marie D’Silva, former aviation professional social entrepreneur and founder of save city. Welcome Elsa Marie!

Elsa:

Thank you, Sophia for having me!

Sophia:

During your tedx talk back in 2015 you said actually sexual violence is a global pandemic. With your safe city platform you collect data and make harassment against women in public spaces visible on an open source map. Which trends actually do you recognize right now with the COVID 19 pandemic ongoing with regard to safety for women in cities and public spaces.

Elsa:

This is a great topic to talk about because it’s not often spoken about. So first of all thank you for having me and thank you for shining a light on this topic. Sexual violence is a global pandemic and it’s true and currently in the midst of COVID 19 which is a health pandemic we are calling it a shadow pandemic. And I feel it’s such an injustice to even call it a shadow pandemic because unfortunately it’s been around for a long time – the numbers clearly show it. So on an average across the world one in three women experience some form of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. That’s 33 percent on an average, right? But in my country when I started doing this work that was around seven years ago, I figured that pretty much all the women in my social circle or immediate circle had some experience to share. But most often have never ever spoken about it in public or reported it officially to the police or to their employer or to any other authority which kind of makes it invisible. And it’s taken this COVID 19 to shine a light and at least it’s now being recognized as a shadow pandemic. Now the trends – coming to the trends: all this while we’ve been working on sexual and gender-based violence in the public space area, right? But during COVID 19 what we’ve noticed is: there’s been a spike in domestic violence. Not that domestic violence has -you know- emerged as a new form of violence. It’s always been there it was just that we weren’t working on it. And during COVID 19 we’ve had to include it in the categories that we are crowd mapping. And what we’ve seen is that a lot of women and girls are experiencing it. And not just women and girls but also -you know- people on the non-binary gender spectrum are experiencing it because of the traditional gender norms that expect them to conform. And now they are stuck at home with people who may be homophobic, transphobic but also taking out their frustration on them in the form of violence. So this is definitely increasing and many countries have reported an increase in their helplines. So also India what we have noticed is we’ve got an increase of people reaching out to us for help whether it is legal help, immediate protection from their physical abusers and also counseling.

Sophia:

Yeah, like if we see or if you see this increase in in kind of inequity or in violence against women from your years of experience there’s probably no one-size-fits-all strategy for cities or city officials but what solution or strategy did you come across in your career which may be promising or is the most promising one to you to increase safety for women in cities and public spaces?

Elsa:

So first of all I would recommend that everybody educates themselves on this topic and understand what constitutes sexual and gender-based violence. Because without that understanding we tend to look at it with myopic lenses as one form or the other or we tend to rate it and grade it according to our own unconscious bias. So first of all awareness -create that awareness- second is figure out how you can be better bystanders. So most of us witness this violence but we stay quiet, we stay silent. I like to say that not all men are perpetrators but most men are silent bystanders and witnesses to this violence thus in a way abetting the crime. And there are many ways you can intervene without putting yourself at risk. So if for example if there’s domestic violence that’s happening in your neighbor’s house one of the simplest ways and strategies that you can use is called ring the bell bell bajau by an Indian NGO called breakthrough. So you could do that but you can call the police yourself. You can also find out the helpline numbers and offer it to the person in that position or offer solidarity or a listening ear. Don’t force anybody to -you know- pick up one of these solutions because maybe they are not ready for it. But in a way you have to expand your own knowledge, your own skill in addressing this issue and constantly check your unconscious bias. When it comes to violence in public spaces and the city, I would like to say that let’s also expand our definition of public space. Because today it’s not just the physical public space but also the virtual space and during COVID where everybody is working from home how do you use your home which is also your workplace. Because now the barriers are pretty blurred. So don’t limit yourself and put this violence in categories and silos but try to look at it.

And the next point is intersectionality, violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

There’s all kinds of things that influence it because it’s a power struggle, power dynamic between two groups and therefore class, caste, religion, economic status, language sometimes are all barriers that can contribute towards this violence.

Sophia:

So it’s known that violence against women is happening mostly in the family and in the private environment rather than probably on the street or in public transport. And you said specifically address like the actions which can be taken within the family or within private life. But from a city point of view, what do you think could cities or like even national governments do to increase safety for women in really public spaces, maybe even with a view now that you said, OK, the home, we need to extend the meaning or the meaning of public space also and address this also in the home area now that it’s home office time during this pandemic?

Elsa:

That’s a great question. So, again, if you are in a position of power or of influence foresee if it’s within your organization, that you have policies that promote gender equal and inclusive spaces.

So, for example, if you are in charge of transportation or you are a city official when you plan these -you know- the city, you design a city or design aspects of the city. Do you have people who represent the population of your city on your team? And therefore, do you have a diverse input into your design planning process? And that’s the first thing that you can correct. Second is, do you have the policies and the legislation that will protect everybody’s rights?

And the thought is that are you always questioning your unconscious bias? Because often without questioning your unconscious bias, you’re not really checking to see whether you’re including everybody. And the last one is data. Without the data at the disaggregated level, how will you get the information and the intelligence to inform you for your decision making, but also for the allocation of resources and the most effective ways of making that place safe. And I give you an example. So one of the neighborhoods that we worked on, though, it was an aspirational neighborhood that means very upper middle class, but yet the issue was chain snatching or petty robbery. And when we crowdsourced the data from the residents, we realized that this was the main issue. We presented this documentation to the police and they were shocked because not a single person had actually made a complaint in the police station. And they were able to use the information, even though it was only 20 data points. That means 20 stories in a six month period. They could see a clear day of week and time of day pattern emerging at specific locations. And so they changed their beat patrol timings and were able to bring down the crime rate. Similarly, in Mumbai, for example, on a road map, most of these hotspots were in and around the railway lines and most of it was around major hub stations. But one hub station didn’t show up. And when we physically went and looked at the space, it was better lighting, more visible police, many more exits, just a nicer space. But as all the others were, dark, dingy, extremely crowded, you couldn’t find the police where they were meant to be seated, etc. And so that led me to thinking more deeply about the impact of urban design on crimes against women in public spaces. And these are small fixes to make. They are not expensive. If you know where it’s happening, the data can allow you to pinpoint the solutions and that is easily fixable with money, with resources. It’s far easier to do than behaviour change over a period of time.

Sophia:

Very, very interesting. Thank you. And next to the data or having the data as the basis, what do you think are the three factors to to actually being able to do those interventions? If you say, OK, resources and finances are, of course, very important, but they don’t need to be as extensive. So what do you think? I really like the maybe three or four factors you really need to do to act against violence against women in public spaces.

Elsa:

So the first is, do you have a mindset to actually solve the problem? Because it really comes down to the intention and the will of the person in charge. And to do this kind of work, you have to be able to collect the data and say there is a problem. Right? If you continue to deny that there is a problem, you’re never going to want to collect the data. You’re never going to collect it and therefore not do anything about it. Without the data, it’s impossible to do it, right?. So what is the intention of the person in charge? The second is, how are you going to collect the data? Because you have to create that confidence and trust with your community to be able to part with the data. The hardest thing that we have ever done is to get women to part with their stories, even if it is anonymous and on a crowd map, which they can do from the comfort of their home. It’s very hard for them to share it because of the social cultural conditioning over a period of time that has made them believe that all these incidents are their fault and therefore they feel like a victim and not, you know, confident enough to come forward and share their story. So building confidence of your community to share it with that data. The third one is having that gender sensitive lens with which you look at that data and then want deep dive into solutions. So, again, if you don’t have the lived experience of these incidents, you’re going to say, OK, why are they thinking that commenting or staring is such a big deal? It’s not such a big deal at all because it’s not your lived experience. But for a woman who’s being stared at constantly or commented upon or catcalled, it might intimidate or to some extent where she might change her routine. She might drop out of the labor force. She might stop taking that transport. And we have many examples of that. But if you build confidence in that person to say that, no, I will take this transport because it is safe for me, you will have more women there. And those -you know- you’re kind of creating that ecosystem of support and strength for more women to come into public spaces. So that is why that gender lens with which you view this data and the solutions that you then put forward is really critical. And then the fourth one is constant dialogue where you invite people to give you feedback on these solutions that you are putting forward or any plans. How many participatory processes are really there when it comes to city planning or even transport planning, at least in my country and city itself.

Sophia:

And so you’ve been working in this field for so many years and you set the mindset and the intention of the persons in charge is super important in the transport sector. We see so many studies or even we have a lot of data, but they’re often not the disaggregated data. And in your career with the Red Dot Foundation or a safe city, you really collected those data. But what what did you really find were the the biggest challenges in doing so?

Elsa:

So the biggest challenges, like I said, to collect the data, to build our confidence that, yes, if you’ll share with us and share your story with us, it goes into this database and we will do something about it, but not at the individual level, but at the macro level. And that takes time, right? Because you first have to get that data, then you have to analyze it, work with the right authorities, implement some of those changes, and then again, see whether it has made a difference. And that is a long process. It takes years for that to happen. But if more people did it and it becomes part of your culture, it’ll be easier to do so. Think, for example, why can’t we implement simple solutions? One of the solutions being if you now go to many airports around the world and the toilets, for example, you have this little panel where they have smileys, they have a smiley face, a very big smiley face, and then a not so happy face. Right. And as you are exiting the toilet, all you have to do is punch that. You know, and that’s a very simple way of collecting immediate data, but is there a way to also collect in a similar fashion how people feel about the space and how they view space? And what are they experiencing in that space, especially when it comes to public spaces, transport, transport hubs, because this is the heart of the city. This is how most of the people in the city would travel, would navigate the public space. And if we are not making any intentional effort for women to feel safe and comfortable, then the downside is that they are going to drop out of participating in the labor force and in the public space. And public spaces, not only for work, but it’s also for leisure, it’s for well-being and so on and so forth. Right? And that’s what’s happening in India. It can´t be directly correlated, but that definitely is a resulting impact of this violence against women in public spaces that is affecting women’s participation in the formal labor force. When now we are at 24 percent and it’s dropping. So why are women not wanting to go out and get a job? Why are they not wanting to go out and join a formal career and so on and so forth? And there are so, you know, there was a study seems to be data was one of the datasets used by this researcher. And she was able to ,correlated to, the economic cost of sexual harassment in a public space where women tend to stop paying more for private transport. And they also compromise on the length of the travel. That means they opt out for they opt to go to colleges closer to their home just because it’s close to home, not because it’s the best college. So you’re compromising on the quality of your education. You’re compromising on your career in a way, and you’re also compromising on your overall well-being. And that is 50 percent of the population, which shouldn’t be the case. The city should be available. For everyone, equally. All the opportunities that are available to men should be available technically to women, but in reality they are not. Because of lived experience are so very different.

Sophia:

Actually here, I would really like to dive deeper in what you said, OK, what are actually the benefits of increasing safety for women in public spaces?

And you said a lot more women would enter the labor force. What other benefits would be like what happens when safety for women in transport and in public spaces in cities is actually increased?

Elsa:

So, a recent McKinsey study says that if India were to achieve true gender equality in the labor force, we could add. And if they could achieve this by 2025, we could add seven hundred and seventy billion dollars to our GDP. So definitely that is an economic benefit to it. Now at an individual level what does it translate to? It translates to more autonomy. It translates to financial independence, a better lifestyle. And studies have shown that when women are educated, when women prosper, they spread the prosperity to every other member of their family and inform their community so everyone benefits if women benefit. And by participating in the labor force, she definitely is benefiting, right? She has access to her own finances. The problem is that with financial independence comes choices, and some people may not be very comfortable with a woman having choices in life or access to choices and options.

Sophia:

There actually, I would like to ask you, like from your from your career and your experiences, which examples did you come by where actions of increasing safety for women in public spaces kind of nudged a long term transformation in that city? Have you there are some examples for us?

Elsa:

So, we look at neighborhood levels and in several of the neighborhoods that we have often, whether it’s in India, in various cities or in Kenya and Kabera through a partner organisation, what we found is the impact of sexual violence has on young girls:

A they may drop out of school.

B, they may be very stressed out going to school because on the way they may be harassed constantly. Now, in some parts, like in Kibera, you don’t change your route whilst going to school because you might be trafficked, you know. So that’s an impact, a huge impact, right? But when the when a place is safe, they can go to school or they return to school. We’ve had lots of examples where girls have returned to school and that is huge because that means they now can progress further in life. You know, so an education leads to a career, but also being able to be in a public space for a longer period of time may give you options for higher education, better upskilling. You know, there are night colleges, for example. I myself did my MBA also at night college. And then when you get into a career, you might have to network. Think about it. A lot of men progress up the career ladder because they have the ability to network with their peers. When does networking happen? It happens after office hours. During that time, most women are rushing home to get back to their children, to cook and to do that other household chores. But what if you weren’t able to network, for example? Would that also open up more opportunities for you? I know because in my corporate life, I did a lot of networking in the night, you know, so I progressed, certainly. And I never at that time felt like I was being held back simply because I never had all these restrictions put upon me. But there are a lot of women who lose out because they can’t. And what we’ve seen in the neighborhoods that we’ve worked in is that there is a difference in how they navigate their spaces. Now, it really also depends on which class of society you come from, because these lower income women and the residents, where they don’t have access to toilets, for example, within their homes, they use public toilets. Often these toilets, the women’s toilets are not maintained well: There’s no proper lighting. There’s no proper doors and windows. And this is seen on the map where a lot of hotspots are in and around the toilets. And -you know- if those were maintained well, for example, and if you identified that as a hotspot and fixed that infrastructure, they have better health because now they’re eating well, they are drinking enough water to go to the loo constantly. Otherwise they won’t because they don’t want to use that toilet and they have a peaceful mind. Because they know that they are not going to be harassed. Right? But imagine if you are constantly under pressure. It is affecting your mental and physical well-being over a period of time.

So, so many things can happen. There’s your health, improves your opportunities, whether education or career improves, and then your whole family benefits because of your opportunities.

Sophia:

I guess we could talk like for years and ages about how to achieve more equity between women and men around the world. And maybe for a last question, I would ask you to answer in just two sentences to close down our podcast. And so firstly, like what is your main advice you would give -in one sentence- to a city official to do to increase safety for women in transport and in public spaces and what not to do?

Elsa:

So, my advice to city officials is work with the local NGOs who are working in this area to collect gender disaggregated information about what women experience during their commute or when they are navigating a public space. That’s one. And what was your second question, sorry?

Sophia:

What not to do.

Elsa:

So, and what not to do is don’t only have men in your committees when planning a city or planning new transport options. Please get diversity on your team so that you can include the lived experiences of the populations that live in your city.

Sophia:

Thank you, Elsa. Thank you so much. I think that was a great ending in our Women Mobilize Initiative of TUMI we have a saying which is: “When women plan transport women has planned for all”. And maybe we could close down with this. Please keep us very much informed as of your activities with Safe City or the Red Dot Foundation. Thank you so much for these inspiring insights and for being a guest with us and Talking Transport Transformation podcast.

Elsa:

Thank you very much for having me. Thank you. Bye bye.

Outro:

Thank you, Elsa Marie and Sophia for shining a light on this important topic. Your work truly has an impact in making cities safer for women and encourage equal access to public spaces and transportation. So, thank you very much for being with us. Hopefully together we inspire more actions in this direction. If you would like to find out more about the Safe City Initiative, please take a look at www.safecity.in. You will also find the link in the description box. We hope you all enjoyed today’s episode of the podcast. And as always, thanks for tuning in. And hear you next time.

© TUMI Team

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