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From peace fellow to international advocate

Rotary peace fellow creates Red Dot Foundation to fight street harassment and violence against women

ElsaMarie D’Silva of Mumbai began her career as a flight attendant, eventually rising to become vice president of network planning for one of India’s largest airlines. Learning about the fatal 2012 gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, an unusually heinous crime that led to public outrage, led D’Silva to make a dramatic career switch. 

D’Silva is the founder and CEO of the Red Dot Foundation, which works with nongovernmental organizations in India, Nepal, and Kenya to address street harassment and violence against women. In addition to community workshops, the foundation empowers women to document catcalling, groping, and other incidents through an online crowdmapping platform called Safecity. D’Silva was also a Rotary Peace Fellow at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Q: Why did you choose to work in this area?

A: Sexual violence is a global pandemic. One in three women experiences it at least once, yet 80 percent of us choose not to make an official complaint. In India, there’s a rape every 20 minutes. We have very strong legislation, but what is legislation if you’re not going to use it? There’s still fear of the police, of bringing shame to oneself and one’s family.

Q: Was this kind of harassment something you witnessed yourself while growing up in India?

A: Yes, I’ve been groped on a bus, on the street, on a train. When I started this work, a friend of mine said, “Now I understand why you don’t take the train in Mumbai.” It was a connection I had not made myself. We don’t know how much these incidents restrict our lives.

Q: Tell us about some ways that the Red Dot Foundation has empowered women.

A: We realized by looking at the Safecity app that there was a hot spot [of harassment] around a tea stall, which is a male-only space in India. Because it was on a busy road, where women passed by, men intimidated them with staring and commenting. When we asked the women what they wanted to change, they said, “We would like the staring to stop.” In our culture, you don’t confront a man directly. So we organized an art workshop for the women, and they painted a nearby wall to say, “Look with your heart, not with your eyes.” And the staring stopped. It educated the community that this behavior was not appropriate.

Illustration by Monica Garwood

Q: Do you think your efforts have led to any reduction in street harassment?

A: I don’t think the harassment has decreased. What I can say is that the conversations have increased and that people are becoming more aware of their rights and are more willing to report. I would even say that you will hear more sad stories because people are talking about it more.

Q: What did you learn from your time as a Rotary Peace Fellow?

A: I learned that the work we are doing that we used to call “pre-emptive” is actually peacebuilding. We’re trying to help people understand gender stereotypes that reinforce toxic masculinity on a daily basis, give them a safe space to discuss this and understand each other’s point of view, and help them navigate these complex issues and be agents of change.

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