This week, a crowdmapping platform called Free To Be has taken Sydney by storm as hundreds of women flock to map their experiences of street harassment online. Collective stories are a powerful way to create awareness, and we saw this in October last year when 1.7 million women all around the world shared their stories on social media as a part of the #metoo movement.
As co-creator of Free To Be, I challenge you to cast your minds back to 2016, before an unstoppable tsunami of women’s stories changed the world as we know it. Back in 2016, facilitating the digital empowerment of thousands of women was not a popular idea. I know because I was trying to do it, working hard to champion a vision to use crowdmapping to map women’s stories and influence the hearts and minds of our decision makers.
It was a grinding fight that tested my patience, and many days I felt like I was alone with a crazy vision shared by very few. Some people suggested just mapping things out on paper like some street safety programs in Delhi do, others told me that women wouldn’t want to share so publicly. But I had a vision to use crowdsourcing tech to once and for all expose the real underbelly of Melbourne: the female experience.
Free To Be Melbourne was open for a few slow weeks in October 2016 before Broadsheet and Buzzfeed picked up the story and then suddenly: boom. Over one thousand stories were shared as women realised that something finally existed to make them heard. It is certainly testament to how times have changed that this time around Free To Be Sydney was picked up instantly by almost every major news source as soon as it landed. The momentum this has enabled is powerful – knowing how hard it is to build concensus with decision makers, until there is a grassroots catalyst for action.
So how do we maintain action beyond the media storm. Because while the spotlight is on, this drives activity and engagement.
But the questions is what happens later, when a significant dataset has been created that exposes the realities of a very complex problem? Will decision-makers stick around? Will the momentum for action be maintaind when the reality that women are not free to access public space the same way men are is backed up by the data? Or will the issue shrink back into the shadows, with gender equality put in the too hard basket? Will we all just return to business as usual?
Free To Be showed me that the biggest barrier to addressing gender-based violence is a lack of data about gender inequality: how it looks, feels and operates in our society. Eighty per cent of sexual assault goes unreported, yet the people who design and run our cities tell me that crime statistics are their main source of data. One in 4 women has experienced partner violence, yet we keep talking about how afraid we should be of strangers. We’re trying to fix something we do not understand.
My own experiences of gender-based violence always left me feeling as if nobody understood what I had gone through because it didn’t align with the public narrative of violence against women. These things rarely do. I have dedicated my life to ensuring no one goes what I went through, but in order to do this, we have to work to help others understand the complex ways the problem presents itself and manifests in society.
While working on Free To Be, I became increasingly aware that by only addressing public space when looking at gender-based violence we ran the risk of perpetuating the monster myth: that gender-based violence happens out in public and that we need to be afraid of strangers more than anyone else. This myth means that women are taught to fear strangers rather than understand the many faces of intimate partner violence, which is the leading cause of preventable death in Australian females aged 14-44.
We know that prevention is better than a cure. And in this case, the data we can draw from stories can help us to drive preventention. But for this to happen, we have to ensure the stories shared by women and the insights from those stories are acted upon.
That’s why I have taken the leap into startup land, launching my company She’s A Crowd: to ensure data like this is made relevant and accessible to people in power, so they can actually begin to address the problem.
We need ways to make data like this customisable for decision-makers to integrate into tangible solutions. In order to ensure the collection of women’s stories doesn’t just result in a guide for ‘how not to get assaulted in the city’, it’s imperative that we hold decision makers to account to use the data to make longer-lasting change. Otherwise our efforts, our stories, our bravery and our vulnerability will be used for someone else’s agenda.