ElsaMarie D’Silva is currently the Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation (Safecity) which is a platform that crowdsources personal
experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces. Since Safecity started in Dec 2012, it has become the largest crowd map on the issue in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal. Elsa is also currently a mentee of the US State Department’s Fortune Program and a fellow with Rotary Peace, Aspen New Voices and Vital Voices. She is listed as one of BBC Hindi’s 100 Women and has won Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award by Dusan Stojanovic (European Angel Investor of the Year 2013) and The Digital Woman Award in Social Impact by She The People. She has penned articles that have appeared in CNN, Huffington Post, WIP amongst others. She has spoken about her work at the Aspen Ideas Festival and at TEDx MidAtlantic. Prior to Safecity, Elsa was in the aviation industry for 20 years where she worked with Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines. Her last portfolio was Vice President Network Planning & Charters where she oversaw the planning and implementation of 500 daily flights.
Arguendo is honored to be featuring her interview.
Sourya (S):Could you give us a glace as to how your college days were like?
Elsa (E): My college days were quite boring. I was the model student who attended all her lectures, therefore nothing extraordinary stands out because I was quite studious. I chose to graduate in English Literature because I loved reading and understanding cultures, contexts and perspectives.
S:Was the aviation sector always something which had fascinated you as a child?
E: Aviation allowed and facilitated travel which always fascinated me as a child. I wanted to visit different countries, meet different people, and experience different things including food, history, architecture, museums, and nature. I wanted to travel the world and my conduit was the aviation industry.
S:You were the Vice President Network Planning & Charters, for Kingfisher airlines. What were the different challenges you faced breaking so many glass ceilings and how did you overcome them?
E: As you are aware, I started my career as a flight attendant and thereafter was selected to become a Flight Safety Instructor teaching pilots and cabin crew safety and emergency procedures. I was then selected for a fast track program that resulted in a job at strategy. I worked in Revenue Management, Pricing and finally Network Planning. At the time, I didn’t think I was breaking any ceilings but just wanted to explore my own potential. I have always been open to opportunities believing that change is constant in life and one must meet it head on, taking on challenges with positivity. I upskilled myself along the way, constantly equipping myself with knowledge and skills needed to do my job effectively and efficiently. I am a quick learner, a team player and a great communicator which has helped me achieve my goals.
S: As the VP, did you ever face instances of mansplaining or instances where you were not taken seriously because of your gender, despite your obvious expertise in the matter?
E: Yes, of course, but at that time I didn’t know the meaning of mansplaining. I had to work harder than my male colleagues to prove myself, along with getting my work recognized. But I persevered and persisted and the rest is history. I like to collaborate and am willing to work with people to find common ground.
S: What led you to start the Red Dot Foundation?
E: In December 2012, a young woman named Jyoti Singh was gang raped on a bus in Delhi. That incident was horrific and brutal and opened up the conversations on sexual violence in India. At the time, I was looking to make a switch to the social sector and looking to find a cause that I believed in. Many things lined up including meeting my co-founders, finding collaborators and having the time to take Safecity forward, as Kingfisher had just shut down and I had time to experiment with the idea. I believe that the safety of women and girls is paramount and safe public spaces are essential to one finding one’s potential
S: What was your initial vision and objective behind Safecity?
E: The initial vision and objective were to provide an online platform to document sexual violence in public spaces. But this was further refined to help people understand what amounts to sexual violence, how it impacts our lives and the use of crowdsourced data to find individual and local solutions and drive institutional accountability.
S: Please explain for our readers as to how does Safecity work? Is the identity of the victims’ safe when they report?
E:Safecity is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. This data which maybe anonymous gets aggregated as hot spots on a map indicating trends at a local level. The idea is to make this data useful for individuals, local communities and local administration to identify factors that cause behaviour that lead to violence and work on strategies for solutions.
Safecity consists of several ways that women/girls can connect with each other on the issue.
We are creating a new data set which does not exist currently. Perception of the police’s insensitivity, as well as cultural backlash, deters people from reporting. They feel more comfortable using our platform and this is seen by reports from over 20 years ago.
By representing the information thus collected on a map as hotspots, we are moving the focus away from the “victim” to the location and people can view the issue through a different lens.Today we make choices for pretty much everything based on reviews – books, movies, restaurants, hotels, but we have nothing for personal safety. We are creating this database which can be used in several ways.
1. Crowdmap – Sharing of stories anonymously, aggregation of trends, notifications and alerts and offering solidarity through the comments section allows people to understand the “safety” landscape of an area and make the most informed decision for themselves. e.g. They can decide on the time of visit, a method of transport to use, if they need to be accompanied by someone or even what clothes to wear.
2. Social media – We have a robust social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. Discussions and advocacy through tweet chats are held regularly by our volunteers. We also have a Writers Movement where bloggers contribute their posts.
3. Data from our site – We send regular dashboards and monthly trends to partner NGOs in India and abroad and the police in Delhi, Mumbai and Goa.
4. Missed call for those with no internet access. They can give a missed call on +91 9015 510 510 and our team calls them back for their story.
S: What kind of support/help does Safecity provide to victims who come forward?
E: We work on general trends and patterns which we help communities/NGOs understand to drive solutions. For individual assistance, we direct them to other organizations who provide legal and/or counseling help.
S: When you started it in 2012, would you have believed that in less than three years Safecity would become the largest crowd map on the issue in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal?
E: No, we didn’t, but it is not surprising given that sexual violence is a global pandemic. UN Women states that 1 in 3 women face some kind of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. But in our experience, the statistic in India seems to be extremely high. A rape occurs every 20 minutes in India.
Yet most women and girls do not talk about this abuse for a multiple of reasons – fear of society, culture, victim blaming, fear of police, tedious formal procedures etc. As a result, women keep silent and this data is not captured anywhere but the perpetrator gets bolder over time and we accept it as part of our daily routine. This leads to under communication and under-reporting of the issue. If there are poor official statistics, the problem is not visible and is not a true representation of the actual problem. Therefore we need to break our silence and document every instance of harassment and abuse in public spaces so that we can find the most effective solutions at the neighborhood level.
S: What has been your proudest moment with respect to Safecity?
E: My personal moment of glory was when I recently received the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award in the presence of my hero, Secretary Hillary Clinton.E: We have several proud moments. Especially when we do workshops and campaigns, women and girls share how our work has helped them return to school, confidently access public spaces, confidently interact with male members in society and confidently stand up for themselves. We have several stories that can be found in the Safecity blog section.
S:At times, do you still miss the skies and your old job in the Aviation Sector?
E: No, I don’t miss my previous job. I am on a plane often enough even in my current role. I do believe there is a time and place for everything and I had a great time in my previous career but my current one drives me at the moment. It is meaningful and satisfying.
S:What word of advice would you give to all those young women (and men) who are
forced to curb their entrepreneurial spirit due to family pressure, society etc and are told that there are things that they cannot do because of their gender roles?
E: My mantra is – Difficult is easy, Impossible just takes longer.
If you want to do something, work on it, plan for it, ask for help, be willing to learn
and open to change and go for it. Sometimes, the journey is easy and often, it is not. Sometimes you take off very easily and often there are many barriers. But if your personal vision is clear, keep at it.