After 20 years of working in a corporate environment, ElsaMarie D’Silva started following her dream to stand up for peace and women’s rights by founding Safecity. Safecity is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. The collected data is put together on a map indicating trends at a local level with the idea to help identify factors that causes behaviour leading to violence and work on strategies for solutions. Being from India herself, ElsaMarie D’Silva has lived most of her life in a country that confronts with gender equality and sexual assault – which is what fed her growing passion for changing the situation to the better. Since 2012 Safecity has largely expended from India to other countries and collected over 10,000 stories from over 50 cities in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal.
ElsaMarie D’Silva’s bravery to embrace a drastic change in her career and her vision to change the world lead her onto a new path that was and is not only personally rewarding but also left her with incredible public recognition: ElsaMarie D’Silva holds seemingly countless awards for her work, including being one of the “50 Most Impactful Social Innovators” by The World CSR Day in February 2017, winner of Tomorrow’s Peacebuilder Award by Peace Direct in December 2017, winner of the Light of Freedom Award at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards (where she met Hillary Clinton on 8 March 2017 by the way) and one of Womennovator’s 100 Women Faces in April 2018. Just to name a few.
ElsaMarie D’Silva is a true inspiration and I’m very grateful I can share with you the interview I did with her about her work, her hands, her country and … Indian food 🙂
ElsaMarie D’Silva, Start by tagging yourself with three words.
Integrity, Perseverance, Resilience
At ABURY everything is handmade and we believe that “hands tell stories“. What do your hands tell about you?
My hands are hardworking, gentle, strong and always available to “lend a hand”.
What is the last thing you created with your hands?
I write a lot but creatively I baked a chocolate cake and decorated it with chocolate ganache for my two nieces in Singapore.
…and if you could choose, what would you like to be able to do with your hands?
I love making creative stuff with my hands – writing, making cards, baking and sugar craft, flower decorations from paper, silk and other materials. I would love to be able to do more.
You made a big shift in your career a couple of years ago in order to focus on empowering women and youth using technology. What motivated that shift and how do you follow that vision today?
I had reached a stage in my aviation career where I was bored of the corporate rat race and wanted to give back especially towards women and children’s rights. I had been mulling over various options. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of a) my airline shutting down post a financial downturn and b) the horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi, I was compelled to do something concrete. Together with my friends, I launched Safecity, a crowd map for sexual violence in public spaces. This data is used to identify patterns and trends that are location based and engage individuals, communities and institutions to find local solutions.
It has now been over 5 years that I started Safecity. It has been an enriching experience, a huge learning curve because in many ways I had to start all over again but it has been the most satisfying experience of my life. Knowing that through my work, I can improve the lives of many people, increase the understanding of gender consciousness and even help women and girls grow confident to access opportunities and realise their potential is hugely motivating for me.
We are working with many different cultures and in the majority of countries gender equality still isn’t the norm. How would you describe the perception of women in India and how does it effect you personally when you as an Indian woman find yourself in other countries, s.a. the U.S. where you are residing these days?
Gender equality is a myth. Whilst it is on paper in many countries’ constitutions, in reality women and girls do not have a level playing field and are not able to exercise their rights. This is true for many women and girls in India. Fortunately for me, my family has been amazing. My parents treated all three of us (my sister, brother and myself) equally. We were free to follow our own career paths, choose our life partners (or not) and live our lives independently. They supported our choices and were always there for us – physically and emotionally. Today, as I look back on my life, I am incredibly grateful to them as I realise it is a privilege.
I am currently on a fellowship at Yale, USA. Having always considered myself to be a global citizen, not confined by my origins or gender, I am excited to seize all the opportunities available to me and push my boundaries to achieve my own potential. I do not allow myself to be restricted in any way. I know my strengths and use them to my full advantage.
So your initiatives tackle social problems in India. But apart from the problems, what do you love about your country? What does it have that no other culture has?
I love my country for its diversity. It is a subcontinent and across the length and breadth of India, you will find different religions, languages, cultures, food and topography. People are of every hue and colour and we live for the most part in harmony. Currently, there is a threat to our free speech and choice of religion but I am confident my country’s democracy will stand the evil forces.
I don’t think there is any place like India. It is full of contrasts – rich and poor live side by side, there is a lot of technology in every field yet we have centuries of tradition. On one hand you have spirituality and then you have an economy that is rearing to go. We are also a very young population and a very populous country. When you come to India, it is an assault on all your senses. So come prepared to be surprised and don’t come with any expectations.
As we at ABURY put a strong focus on the preservation of crafts and using this sector to empower people, I am wondering, what role do micro-businesses and crafts play in India as a way to empower women?
My country is rich in heritage, culture and crafts. Every 100 kms you will find something new. Women of course are in most places the custodians of this culture as they earn their daily living in keeping these craft alive. There is a huge effort to get more women to take up handicrafts and micro-businesses. For women, it is convenient and flexible as they can do it from their homes or near their homes and balance their home chores and work. It is also important from a historical perspective to keep these craft alive for posterity.
Our blogzine “One of a mind” underlines our strong belief in equality and the value of sharing. How does intercultural exchange benefit our global society in your eyes?
Intercultural exchange helps us understand the “other”. This is so critical for peace and harmony when time and attention spans are short. Appreciating each other, knowing where you have come from and being able to find common ground is essential skills in today’s fast-paced and sometimes seemingly intolerant world.
And last but not least, talking about other senses – how would you describe the “Tastes of India” and what is your favourite?
As mentioned earlier, we have a variety of cuisines and the tastes differ from place to place. It is dependent on the food that is locally grown and that in turn is dependent on the climate of the region. We eat a lot of fresh foods which are sourced locally. Most Indians eat plenty of vegetables. We also use a variety of spices so our food is very flavourful. You will always have something new to try out.
My favourite comfort food is “kichdi” which is a rice and lentil dish that is simple and healthy.
© All photos via ElsaMarie D’Silva