Elsa D’Silva was 13 years old. She was riding a local train in Mumbai, India, with her mother, sister and brother. And just as she was about to get off, she felt it — a hand reaching up her skirt.
“It affected my ability to use a train as a means of transport — and it still does, even still,” D’Silva says. But for 25 years, she didn’t tell anyone why she avoided trains.
Then, in 2012, the now infamous rape of a 23-year-old medical student on a Delhi bus sparked a national conversation. For the first time, D’Silva says, Indian women began openly discussing experiences of sexual violence, harassment and intimidation. “I realized that so many of my friends had similar experiences to mine — but until then we had never talked about it.”
That year, she co-founded Safecity — an online platform that lets women immediately and anonymously report their experiences of harassment and abuse. “It’s so women can share what happened, where it happened and when it happened,” D’Silva says.
Safecity is just one of many websites and mobile apps all over the world providing women with an outlet to safely, discreetly report harassment. There’s HarassTracker in Lebanon and Hollaback! — which started in New York and now operates in 26 countries including Australia, Ecuador, Kenya and the U.K.
In Egypt, there’s HarassMap. Co-founder Noora Finkleman and other activists initially developed the platform in order to soften the taboo of discussing sexual harassment.
“Back when we first launched in 2010, in our culture it was just normal to ignore harassment or deny that it was happening,” Finkleman says. At the time, Egypt’s first lady Suzanne Mubarak even alleged that the problem of harassment had been blown out of proportion by Islamic extremists looking to push their own agenda.
“So we said, why not have an online technology that allows women to anonymously report their experiences,” Finkleman says, “so we can start documenting that this is actually happening, that this is a widespread problem.”
That first year, nearly 200 women sent in reports to HarassMap. The next year, the number doubled. Each report was vetted by volunteers “to make sure it isn’t obviously fake,” Finkleman says. Since this data is collected anonymously, there’s no way to fully verify it, she adds. “But what motivation would someone have to make a fake report anyway?” she says.
By contrast, based on her experiences working with victims, Finkleman says she believes that policymakers and law enforcement officers have largely discounted and discredited women’s harassment experiences
“In fact, the number of reports that we received is probably nowhere close to what was actually happening,” Finkleman says. “Not everyone had access to get online and report, and despite our outreach efforts a lot of people didn’t know there even was such a tool. But at the very least, HarassMap served as a tool to help break the silence around this issue.”
In the seven years since HarassMap launched, Finkleman says, Egyptians have begun to discuss the issue more openly and publicly. “These days, more and more people are feeling free to talk about sexual harassment on their own personal profiles on Facebook,” she says.
In 2014, the government introduced new fines and jail time for harassers. Perpetrators can now face from six months to five years in prison and fines up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds (about $280).
“Of course, the problem hasn’t gone away,” Finkleman says. “But at least we are seeing some change when it comes to policies.” Local newspapers have been reporting arrests for harassment.
The boom of sexual harassment websites and apps is “clearly responding to a need,” says Jhumka Gupta, an epidemiologist at George Mason University who focuses on issues of gender-based violence. “I think these platforms are great because the control is given to the women,” she says. “They don’t have to go through the police or public authorities who may not take them seriously.”
There are limits to what such platforms can do, Gupta says. They’re not an especially reliable source of data — but they are a start. “There’s not a lot of public health data on street harassment,” Gupta says. “And there’s a lot we still don’t know about its mental health impact. Does it prevent women from going to health clinics? From using public transportation?”
The handful of studies and surveys that have been done indicate that harassment can have serious consequences. In a survey of nearly 1,000 women in Mexico City, Gupta found that 70 percent altered their daily routines in order to evade harassment. Women reported missing, being late to or having to change jobs or schools, and even moving from one neighborhood to another to avoid being catcalled or groped.
“I do credit these [websites and apps] for bringing public awareness to the issue,” Gupta says. “The next step is engaging communities and engaging men to stop harassment.”
That’s why D’Silva and her Safecity co-founders decided to take their efforts offline as well — with community workshops and street art campaigns.
“In New Delhi, for example, we discovered through the app that one of the hot spots for sexual harassment was a public toilet,” D’Silva says. “It didn’t have proper lighting, it didn’t have proper doors and windows. And there were also young men sitting outside on a couch, harassing the women as they went in and out, even taking their photos without permission.”
So she went to the authorities and asked them to install better lighting. And she worked with community leaders to organize a workshop “to sort of explain to the local boys that not only was their behavior really affecting the women and girls, but also that it was illegal under Indian law.”
The final touch was a mural around the toilet walls. One part shows a man whistling at women. “What,” it tells any creeps who might be milling about, “you think this is OK?”
Maanvi Singh is a freelance writer based in London. Contact her @maanvisings