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Mapping unsafe areas for women in Mumbai

Web-based platform encourages residents of India's financial capital to report sex crimes and help mark areas as unsafe.

Last updated: 24 Dec 2013 13:47
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Crowdsourcing has helped to mark out unsafe areas around a railway station in Mumbai

"One evening I went to the market when it was very crowded, then one man walking behind me touched me in a dirty way.

"Whenever we sit, men mostly those who are middle aged, tend to brush themselves against us ... they rub their private parts against the girls' shoulders, especially college-going girls because they don't react or speak. They also give a dirty smile when looked with anger."

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The quotes are part of testimonies found on HarassMap Mumbai, an online platform that aims to encourage women in India's financial capital to report instances of sexual harassment, and follow that up by marking areas in the city as unsafe if their experience suggests that.

Indignant Indians

Launched recently by Akshara, a non-profit organisation, HarassMap is among the latest initiatives to be spun out by a section of Indians indignant over the increasing instances of sexual violence against women in recent years.

We have to understand that the police cannot be everywhere. Yet, crimes against women need to be heard. So a tool like HarassMap makes it possible for people to report on unsafe areas

Nandita Gandhi, Akshara

The map is interactive and crowdsources information to map the city based on women's perception of safety.

The idea of the map was triggered by a similar exercise during the anti-Mubarak Egyptian uprising when people mapped unsafe areas in the capital Cairo.

It spread across the world as an international project with many cities starting to follow the Cairo model. In Mumbai, Akshara launched HarassMap Mumbai, as an extension to its existing work.

"We have to understand that the police cannot be everywhere. Yet, crimes against women need to be heard," said Nandita Gandhi of Akshara.

"So a tool like HarassMap makes it possible for people to report on unsafe areas."

Based on an open-source software, the online platform makes it possible for a victim to report unsafe areas, and four types of harassment - physical, verbal, visual and stalking.

Unsafe areas are further categorised as open spaces, colony, street, and (railway) station.

Physical harassment includes touching, rape/sexual assault, acid attacks; verbal harassment includes cat calls, comments, phone calls/MMS; visual harassment includes taking photos, facial expressions, staring, indecent exposure, showing pornography; stalking includes repeated phone calls, MMS/SMS and tailing.

Women can mark the map anonymously and describe the nature of the incident they have encountered.

They also have the option of specifying the site of the incident (at a taxi stand, while walking on a footpath, etc), and detail the profile of the harasser (youth, family/relative, boss/superior, etc).

'Talk tough'

Safe City, which is operational across various Indian cities, is another similar platform which will complete a year this Christmas.

Elsa Marie D'Silva, one of the three founders of the service, compares it to Trip Advisor.

"It is almost second nature now for travellers to check the safety of a destination before starting on a trip," she said. 

"Women can access Safe City to give them the safety quotient."

Besides women, there are options for men and transgenders to also access HarassMap and input their experiences and rate the safety of a locality.

So far, 104 persons have reported mostly being "touched".

Akshara's Gandhi said the Mumbai police were approached to follow up on the complaints. "We wanted them to handle the reports, but they said that they cannot be everywhere." she said.

"They have agreed to address issues of non-safety in different areas based on trends that might emerge from the mapping.

"We will be able to draw up a report after the map has completed six months of existence." 

Gandhi feels that it is not always easy for all working women to keep safe. "It is easy for women like you and me to take another route, or get a brother or male friend to talk tough to the boys lurking on some streets." she said.

"But this is not the case for all women. They will simply be ordered to stay indoors, and thus their mobility is curbed.

"So a tool like this offers them some way of making their agony known, and possibly ensure a safe route for themselves."

Stigma fears

Apart from web-based platforms, several mobile applications also address the issue of women's safety.

One of the widely promoted among these is the Vith U app for Android and iOS phones, created by Channel V. Once downloaded, a woman who perceives danger can press the power button of her phone so that four pre-designated people are alerted about her location.

Prem Kamath, chief executive of Channel V, said there have been 550,000 downloads of the app since its launch last month; Hindi film star Kareena Kapoor is promoting it, apparently pro bono.

Before the apps came on the scene, women used to carry safety pins, chilli powder, pens and knuckle dusters, as tools of self defence. However, a key question persists: will these many apps that are rapidly being downloaded mitigate the crimes against women in public spaces?

"I wish we were living in a world where such an app was not required. It does not guarantee safety, but it is just an arsenal for safety," said Kamath.

Journalist and researcher Sameera Khan, who is also the co-author of the book 'Why Loiter: Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets', also has a word of caution.

Khan says tools such as Safe City and HarassMap Mumbai assume that certain parts of the city as safe or unsafe, when it is common knowledge that a woman faces harassment even within institutional boundaries like home or the office.

"No untoward incident might take place and yet a woman might feel unsafe or uncomfortable," said Khan.

"At the same time, I also fear that neighbourhoods that are poor and populated with minority groups might inadvertently get marked as unsafe areas.

"So while mapping the city - and all other cities - is a good idea, all kinds of implications have to be considered."

Follow Priyanka Borpujari on Twitter: @Pri_Borpujari

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