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ElsaMarie D'Silva

ElsaMarie D'Silva paints a picture of the sexual and gender-based violence against women and her journey of fighting it with 'Safecity'.

ElsaMarie D'Silva is a social entrepreneur and founder of the Red Dot Foundation, a Mumbai-based Organization. She is also the innovator behind the online platform Safecity and a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Prior to her career change, ElsaMarie worked in the aviation industry for 20 years as the Vice President of Network Planning and Chaters for Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines. She later focused her efforts on women and youth empowerment in the areas of gender-based violence, thereby prompting the beginning of Safecity in 2012. ElsaMarie launched Safecity as an immediate response to the horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. The brutality of the incident as well as her journey to find her purpose led her to work towards creating safe spaces for women and girls.

Beginning almost ten years ago, Safecity is a crowdsourcing platform that collates anonymous stories of sexual and gender-based violence. These stories are geotagged and appear as pins on a map. It makes visible the issue of sexual and gender-based violence that is highly underreported due to the stigma and taboo associated with it. The map allows a person to look for local patterns and trends by time of day, day of the week, date range, and category of harassment faced in a particular area. The information has proved to be very valuable in giving information to contextualize the incidents, help point to the contributing factors that cause the violence, and even encourages one to think of solutions to prevent and address it. Safecity has risen to the position of the largest crowdsourcing app on the issue in India, Kenya, Cameroon, and Nepal.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is globally pervasive, impacting on an average one in three women around the world, according to UN Women. This number seems to be much higher in India, where the National Crime Research Bureau statistics indicate that there is a rape every 15 minutes. Such cases of harassment and violence are normalized, as seen in the recent National Family Health Survey where fifty-two percent of women surveyed believed it was reasonable for a husband to beat his wife. This patriarchal mindset leads to physical and other forms of violence and discrimination perpetrated against women and girls, leading to high rates of femicide, low representation in political and business leadership, low participation in the formal labor force, and more,” elaborated ElsaMarie as a response to her continuous work in bringing about a change in the way women find themselves being victimized by society.

Red Dot Foundation, which is a registered nonprofit in India (Sec 8 company) and the USA (501c3) has been working with youth on college campuses and women in communities on gender sensitivity, challenging harmful gender norms and biases, and breaking the silence on sexual and gender-based violence. A large part of their work involves educating people on understanding the spectrum of harassment and abuse and knowing their rights. The collected data has encouraged over 40,000 young people and women to be better allies, peer first-responders, and work with their institutions to have stronger mechanisms to prevent harassment and violence. They have even partnered with local community-based organizations in over 25 locations in India and abroad to use the data to understand the contributing factors that cause the violence and have engaged police, civic, and transport officials to create safe spaces and effective redressal mechanisms for survivors.

ElsaMarie’s pioneering work in social service has made her the recipient of various prestigious national and international awards, such as the Government of India’s 2016 #WomenTransformingIndia award, Vital Voices’ 2017 Global Leadership Award, etc. She has also drafted a handbook concerning the power of digital technology to address gender-based violence worldwide. She acknowledges that it had been a steep learning curve as she made a career switch. Starting from scratch, understanding the sector, building her network, all took a lot of time and effort, even funding became an issue. The aviation sector was no different where her efforts and opinions were overlooked despite excelling at work or up-skilling herself, all because of the gender biases involved. ElsaMarie still powered through and kept going because she knew she had a bigger purpose that she needed to focus on.

This was her advice for all the women out there:

"Women must maintain their bank accounts and operate them, as financial independence can go a long way to help you walk out of the abusive or toxic situations that would otherwise be impossible to escape had you been dependent on your abuser to support you financially. Don’t be afraid to speak up, you must break your silence to get the help you need. Be aware of the spectrum of abuse. You should know your rights so you can take action if the need arises. Most importantly, consent is mandatory. Please say no and insist the other person respect it."


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