Kirthi Jayakumar, The Red Elephant Foundation


#WhatWomenWant is a collaborative effort launched by the ATHENA Network and driven by young feminists and young women from around the world. The campaign has created space for activists and advocates across the women’s movement to amplify their voices, power their solutions and claim their agency. Throughout the month of September we will be highlighting young feminists and the work they’re doing to advance the vision, priorities, and rights of women and girls in all of their diversity. #WhatWomenWant provides a democratic platform equalize all voices and catalyze cross-movement action towards what truly works for women and girls. 

I sleep for a few hours every night – I’m usually on my phone and social media around the clock. But that night, when I received a message asking for help, I was asleep. The guilt for not being awake ate me up, and kicked me into action. 

Recently a distraught friend, who had just moved to the United Kingdom after her wedding, left me sixteen messages asking for help. She was caught without a way out of an abusive relationship. Her husband monitored her phone and laptop, and locked the house when he left it, leaving her behind. He beat her, often times being aggravated when she screamed for mercy. On many days she slept without food because he didn’t let her eat. I would learn later that she had been putting up with this for nearly 13 months. She couldn’t Google the nearest shelter or emergency support services, because using her phone meant that he could trace her. 

After sending me the messages, she pulled out her SIM Card and cut it up, left her phone behind, and managed to slip out of the house. She made her way to the closest railway station; as a foreigner who had not yet become a citizen, she wasn’t aware of what rights she had on foreign soil. She spent a day switching trains until she could muster enough courage to call home and ask for the help of her parents in India. They were able to get in touch with a shelter, where she was taken care of. Her father brought her back to India, where she now lives, while proceedings for her divorce are underway. 

 Her story shook me up. She had put her trust in me, and I was asleep. What if there were many women like her, seeking help from across oceans, simply because they don’t know how to seek help locally? What if they continue to be vulnerable to abuse or violence, and can’t seek help because they have no access to the outside world? I wanted to do something about it. 

I spent a couple of weeks talking to women to understand the factors that could hinder one’s access to crisis response. Most of the answers were obvious: lack of money, awareness, knowledge of a foreign language if they were in a different country. Then came the ones that were harsh to digest: one survivor was afraid to Google help because it left traces on the browser history – and she worried about forgetting to erase the entries in her nervousness. Another survivor told me her former partner had installed spyware in her system – and she had no idea because it was so inconspicuous. An aid worker volunteer said that fear came from being unable to verify the authenticity of a care provider – given that many organizations are forced to cut down on intakes, services, or programs, or even close down, for want of funds. 

 I had kicked the hornet’s nest. I was dealing with something that was so huge, it was no exaggeration to say that the nuances had nuances. I spent restless hours brainstorming the many dimensions to fill the gap between services and victims in need of those services. Then the idea struck me: what if there was a way to verify organizations in cities around the world, and present the data so that women anywhere could access a service they most needed? What if, then, this mapped data could feed into a mobile app that could be accessed by women anywhere? So a mother in India could get in touch with a shelter or the police in the UK to ensure that her daughter was rescued, or a girl in Singapore could help her sister in Ireland access urgent medical care by accessing the resource appropriately for her. 

 I worked with volunteers from my team at the Red Elephant Foundation, as well as the UN Online Volunteering program to handle the task (a BIG SHOUT OUT to Laura Donati, Manmeet Kaur, Abubakar Abdullahi, Alka Mann, Georges Gedeonachi, Heather Thomas, Lance Orwa, Luqman Rabe and Prathyusha Sadhu!). We split a massive list of 197 countries among us, and by the end of two months we had a list of 5000 organizations around the world who provided aid to women who have survived violence. After the data collection I spent each night verifying that the organizations were functional: inquiry calls to their lines, online website verification, their social media presence, and conversations with people in the areas these organizations were in. Slowly as the map took shape, we realized there were entire countries that appear not to have comprehensive services. There were several segments of areas such as far Eastern Russia, parts of Central Asia and Africa that had little to no data that was accessible. It had also become apparent that we couldn’t have all the answers and find all the organizations in all cities of the world (although the aim is to get there). 

We decided to make it a crowdsourced map, where people could submit reports of organizations, that we could verify and add. I started to build the data into a crowdmap. Inspired by Harassmap and Safecity, I realized there was a sense of clarity, ease and fluidity when data is visualized – rather than a downloadable directory or a pair of drop-down menus. When visualized, data helps see where resources are inadequate – so even aid providers can establish initiatives accordingly – to cover areas that are otherwise unattended to. Our team split the data into categories and mapped them with color codes: Legal help, Medical help, Resources (Food, Shelter, Clothing and Supplies), Education and Empowerment Programs, Police, and Ambulance services. 

 When we had mapped about 97 countries, I made it live from our website. We assumed no one would notice, and went about data mining. Little did we know that impact was taking shape. A young lady in Sri Lanka was suspicious of her sister’s behavior. Her sister, married and settled for close to three years in Europe, would call home once every two weeks, seemingly normal. Eventually it became apparent to the sister in Sri Lanka that her sister in Europe was facing violence. The young lady in Sri Lanka follows our website, and in her curiosity she had stumbled onto the map. As luck would have had it, we had mapped a bunch of crisis response centers in her sister’s city. She called one, and with the help of the police, her sister was rescued. 

 At some point in the process I was beginning to wonder if this task made sense at all, but the universe found its way of bringing this powerful story to me at the right time. With feedback, we’ve come to understand that accessing this map seems easier, given that it is just one entry to be deleted from browser history if one feels they are being watched. We also know that women feel empowered about being able to help other women anywhere in the world. Now the map sits online, ready to help, and a mobile app will soon be made available. 

 As I write this, I have an email alert from an organization in Mumbai that provides shelter for women. They tell me that with the help of the crowdmap, they were able to direct a young woman in the US to the closest emergency medical help center. This makes me hope that providers can collaborate and not compete - encouraging and fostering better and easier access in the process. While I would like ideally that no woman in the world would face a situation that requires her to use the map, I also sadly acknowledge that we are not there yet. I hope the map helps as many women as possible in the world to get out of difficult situations with the least amount of inconvenience.

The map may be found here: http://gbvhelpmap.crowdmap.com 

 To contact Kirthi or the Red Elephant Foundation: [email protected]

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