Women Aren't Safe in Public Spaces, But These Women Are Working to Change That

Property of the Aspen Institute / Photo Credit: Riccardo Savi

Property of the Aspen Institute / Photo Credit: Riccardo Savi

The tragic murder of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, an Iowan who was killed when she was out for a run, became a national story when the man accused turned out to be an undocumented worker from Mexico. 

But since Mollie's death was politicized as part of the immigration debate, many people, including many female runners, have pointed out that the real problem we need to be paying attention to is that women are not safe in public spaces in America. The truth is, we're not safe anywhere, including public spaces, and it's an issue that needs our attention.

(Urgently, in fact: The 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which should be a no-brainer and has been regularly reauthorized with bipartisan support, is in danger of expiring on September 30. As of this writing, not one Republican House member has stepped forward to co-sponsor the bill, which includes increased focus on prevention and educating men and boys as an important part of the proposal. Learn more.)

CNN reports that a shocking number of women report being harassed while running. A 2016 survey in Runners World asked its readers, "How often, if ever, does a stranger whistle at you, comment on your body, needlessly honk at you, or give you other similar unsolicited sexual attention?" 

"Forty-three percent of women runners said they sometimes, often or always experienced such behavior. Only 4% percent of men did."

CNN contributor Symone D. Sanders argued this week that the main safety issue in the Tibbetts case was not Rivera's status as an undocumented farm worker from Mexico but his "toxic masculinity" and the suspect's unwillingness to take no for an answer.

Last month, I had the honor and privilege to moderate a panel at the Aspen Institute Spotlight Health conference on the topic of making communities safe for women. In the US, someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds and worldwide more than one-third of women and girls have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives, leading the World Health Organization to highlight it as “a global health problem of epidemic proportions.”

I spoke with two activists working to protect women. ElsaMarie D'Silva is the founder and CEO of the Red Dot Foundation (Safecity), a platform that crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces in India. She’s a Yale World Fellow and alumna of the Stanford Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program, US State Department’s Fortune Program, Oxford Chevening Gurukul, and Commonwealth Leadership Program. Agnes Igoye is Uganda’s deputy national coordinator for the prevention of trafficking in persons and heads Uganda’s Immigration Training Academy. She is also a 2018 Aspen New Voices Fellow

Both women stressed to me that when we talk about women's safety in public spaces, we have to begin by ensuring that women are safe in their homes and free from domestic violence. And that conversation starts by talking about basic rights for girls, beginning with the value that a girl child feels from day one.

ElsaMarie D'Silva grew up in India and told me that she was lucky in so many ways. She was born into a family that valued her, even though she was a girl. She was fortunate to be educated and given the opportunity to make her own choices, especially in terms of marriage and other life decisions. But not many women and girls are fortunate like her. 

Agnes explains how her father was her champion in a household with six girls in a village that did not appreciate women.

We know this and yet when Agnes shared her personal story about growing up in Uganda and being forced to pray on her knees with the rest of her family every time her mother became pregnant for the child to be a boy, we recognize our own privilege and indeed luck at being born into families that value girls.

It shouldn't have to be that way.

The statistics are startling. Even though India has a law that bans couples from determining the sex of their child in the womb, ElsaMarie says that people still find ways to learn whether they are carrying a girl or a boy and they are killing off the girls. In India, there are 37 million more men than women. 

Once a little girl makes her way into the world, ElsaMarie explains that an Indian woman's worth and her identity is closely linked with first her father, then her husband and finally, her son. ElsaMarie says that this needs to change. India now is seeing the largest number of women graduating from college and pursuing education. Women are becoming financially independent and they want more from life. Despite that, the percentage of Indian women in the labor force has been decreasing. She says one of the reasons for that is women are not feeling safe enough to pursue work outside the home. They are not safe on public transportation and at work. 

ElsaMarie talks about how she became an activist after the attack on Jyoti Singh Pandey.

Making Communities Safer

After the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi, Elsa started the Red Dot Foundation and launched a  crowdsourced "Safe Cities" map. She asks people to share stories of sexual harassment and sexual violence anonymously on the map. These data points are then compiled as location-based trends visualized on the maps. She and her team are then able to pinpoint what is happening where and work collaboratively with local authorities, community leaders and NGOs to come up with solutions. 

ElsaMarie talks about some of the ways the SafeMaps data has been used to help girls and women in India.

ElsaMarie shared two examples of how data from SafeCity app contributed to positive change in Delhi. In one area, girls were being groped on their way to school. It was so frequent that some of the girls were thinking about dropping out of school because they didn't want to continue being harassed. One of ElsaMarie's coworkers noticed there was a mosque on the street where the girls were walking. She called the Imam in, told him what was happening and he began to talk about inappropriate and unwanted touching in his sermons. There was an immediate effect. 

ElsaMarie hopes that the SafeCity app can be used in other countries to effect the same kind of improvement in understanding the ways in which women are harassed or violated and coming up with local solutions to make safer communities. 

Working to Stop Human Trafficking

Agnes Igoye escaped human traffickers at the age of 14 when the Lord's Resistance Army raided her village. Since then, she’s built a center for human-trafficking survivors, trained over 2,000 law enforcement officials to counter human trafficking, and fundraised for and delivered over 92,000 textbooks to educate vulnerable children.

Agnes talks about identifying the women who are victims of trafficking and the global problem of human trafficking.

Agnes also worked to include wording that outlawed child marriage in legislation against human trafficking that passed in Uganda in 2009. Child marriage was a big problem in Uganda and now there is a law forbidding the marriage of girls under the age of 16. 

Agnes acknowledges that putting an end to human trafficking is a complicated business. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are over 40 million victims globally. Of those, 75% are women and girls and 25% are children. The ILO estimates that human trafficking is a $150 billion global industry. It happens in every country in the world and in every state in the United States. In addition to training law enforcement officials, doctors and others to recognize the signs that a person or child is the victim of human trafficking, Agnes stresses the importance of not only passing legislation against trafficking, but also holding the perpetrators accountable. She says that we need to help victims and empower them to testify against their abusers. 

Lastly, Agnes talked about the importance of women supporting each other in this work. She says human trafficking is such a big problem and we all have a contribution to make. Men need to not be silent bystanders and speak up, as well. 

Ending gender-based violence and human trafficking requires ending the culture of complicity and impunity, empowering women, reforming legal systems, and securing more effective responses from the health and social service systems. As these brave and exceptional women have shown, there is progress being made, but we still have so far to go. I encourage you to watch our entire conversation and visit the Red Dot Foundation and the Polaris Project websites to learn more and support their important work. 


- Pat