There is a pandemic of sexual violence running alongside the health pandemic caused by Covid-19, according to Elsa Marie D'Silva, founder of the Red Dot Foundation and president of Safecity. One in three women will experience some form of sexual assault or gender-based harassment in their lifetimes, and in D'Silva’s experience of working with women in India, she said almost all of her peers have been a victim, and yet none of them brought it to authorities. The ubiquity of violence against women has wide-ranging and severe consequences, both on an individual scale, and a societal level. Near daily harassment on public transit has resulted in women avoiding public spaces known to be unsafe, which in turn stunts their social and professional lives. The fact that women’s labor participation in India is 24% and is in a downward trend has much to do with this systemic issue of women feeling unsafe in the public arena, said D'Silva.
One impediment to cities and governments taking action on this issue is a lack of awareness of the problem, where it manifests, and how to devise fitting solutions. D’Silva’s platform Safecity collects and analyses crowdsourced, anonymous reports and data of sexual violence crime, identifying patterns and key insights which are then mapped to highlight assault hotspots around cities and on public transport. D’Silva noted the essential process of creating confidence and trust with women in the community sharing their stories in order to build such a data-laden resource. D’Silva also urged transport authorities to give women a seat at the table, so that relevant data points aren’t missed by biased reviewers lacking a feminine perspective.
“We all need to understand what sexual and gender-based forms of violence are,” she said. “Without understanding, we look at it with myopic lenses as one form or another, or rate it and grade it according to our unconscious bias. Most of us witness this violence but don’t report it. Most men aren’t perpetrators, but most men are silent bystanders.”
Sexual violence and harassment on public transport is an all too common experience for women. For example, in Mumbai, Safecity data was able to reveal that sexual assaults and harassment were clustered densely around railway lines and all major transport stations, barring one station. In investigating the station and comparing it to its more crime-dense peers, researchers were able to isolate the key differences which made it a safer environment for women - more visible police presence, more lighting, better cleanliness, more exits, and so forth.
Urban design plays a massive role in reducing crimes against women in public spaces and is a much more viable solution to the plague of violence than behavioral change over time. The lack of diversity among city planners and urban designers with regard to female input largely explains these gaps in awareness, said D’Silva.
“If you don’t have the lived experience of these situations, you won’t understand the answers and data you receive,” she said. “But a woman who has experienced this kind of harassment will understand the salience of certain feedback and how it might affect women’s behavior.”
Ensuring that public spaces and transport are welcoming of women enables their educational, professional, and social flourishing, which, as many studies have demonstrated, flows over into the women’s families and communities. A 2018 McKinsey & Company study found that if India were to achieve true gender equality in the labor force by 2025, it could add $770 billion to the national GDP.
Inclusivity, diversity, and safety are the fundamental building blocks for a public domain based on equality; as TUMI podcast host Sophia Sunder noted, “When women plan transport, women plan for all.”
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