Content Warning: This piece contains graphic content of sexual assault.
One evening, I was traveling on the local train in Mumbai with my mother and siblings. The compartment was extremely crowded; it was hot and sweaty. It felt as if 100 people were being squished into one tiny area. As we prepared to disembark, I felt my skirt being lifted and someone groping my private parts. It was terrible. I wanted to scream, but my voice would have drowned in the noise of the crowd. I wanted to push the hands away, but my arms remained pinned to my body. I wanted to cry, but could only think to myself, “Stop it! Please stop touching me.”
I was 13 years old.
I filed the incident at the back of my mind, and never spoke about it until just recently. I moved on with life in the best way I knew how to. I also developed an aversion to traveling by train.
I didn’t know it then, but today I know I was not alone in what I experienced.
According to UN Women, one in three women around the world face some kind of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. Think about that: one in three women. What’s more is that while half of these incidents occur before girls are 16 years old, 80 percent of women choose not to talk about it out of fear of bringing shame to themselves and their families, of not being taken seriously by the police or of the lengthy judicial process.
In fact, for many of us, we think of sexual violence only as rape. We tend to ignore other verbal and nonverbal forms of violence, thinking they are too “trivial.” In fact, these instances can be extremely debilitating — limiting our choices, our movements and our mental health. Allowing “trivial” instances like these to persist silently enables rape and rape culture.
Every year, groups around the world shine a light on this issue through “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.” This period begins on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and ends on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. All over the world, organizations and activists working on gender-based violence run campaigns online and offline, drawing attention to the topic. Even so, there remains a taboo around the issue, making it difficult for many victims to talk about it. All of this creates a societal need to discuss gender-based violence sensitively.
In December 2012, I created Safecity, a platform dedicated to breaking this silence and bridging the data gap that exists. I was spurred to action after the horrific gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, who later died from her injuries. It was then that I remembered my 13-year-old self, as well as other times in my life when I’d experienced sexual violence. My friends had stories, too, many of them silenced by time.
Our idea with Safecity was to encourage anonymous reporting of sexual harassment, visualizing these stories on a map through location-based trends and patterns. Over the past few years, we have been mapping — not only in India but also in countries around the world like Kenya, Malaysia, Nepal and Cameroon. We have used this collection of stories to effectively engage around 500,000 citizens and institutions: the police, municipal and transport authorities, educational institutions, corporations, religious and community leaders.
Changing cultures of violence is partly about policies — but it’s also about giving people a voice. By making it easier for people to share their stories and report, and transparently showcasing the data we collect, we can hold institutions accountable. Our data has led to police altering beat patrol timings and increasing patrolling. It’s led to municipal authorities fixing street lighting in certain areas and making safe public toilets available. Alongside a partner organization in Nepal, we pressured transportation authorities to create “women only” buses, allowing women to travel without fear of sexual assault.
Storytelling is important in helping women and girls feel supported, giving a vocabulary to their experience and building solidarity so that they can find the courage to seek help. It also helps men and boys understand the pain and trauma women and girls go through. Ultimately, we hope that these stories will encourage men and boys to intervene to stop crimes from occurring in the first place, rather than being silent bystanders.
So, as we head into the 16 Days of Activism, I would like to encourage everyone to take a more active role in ending violence against women and girls worldwide, ending a global pandemic that permanently affects the quality of one’s life. There are many resources on campus that are available to help one learn about consent, identify various forms of sexual misconduct, report sexual violence and get psychological help.
You are not alone. Never be afraid to reach out for help if you need it.
Elsa D’Silva is a 2018 Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow. She is an Indian gender activist and is the founder and CEO of Red Dot Foundation (Safecity). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .