A little before midnight, just as this writer was beginning her interview with 28 year-old Shemeer P, he said, "I am not associated with any big organisation or NGO. I manage the websites and blogs you want to write about alone in my free time from my village. Are you sure you want to write about me?" On being told that's one of the big reasons why we wanted to write about him, he laughed and said, "You must be like me, completely crazy."
Crazy or not, what Shemeer is doing is certainly commendable. Three months ago, he decide to set up www.maps4aid.com, a website that collects and stores daily reports of violence against women across the country. Today, it is a comprehensive resource that lets you upload published and verified newspaper reports of violence against women on the website and mark places where such incidents take place on a map of India on the site.
"Volunteers who read the newspaper just take a picture of the articles on violence against women and mail it to me," he explains. In his free time, usually at night, he sits down and filters the mails and the reports he finds in newspapers, writes a paragraph or two about the incident, uploads it on the site and marks the map.
How it started
About three months ago, he came across a Trust Law report that claimed that India is one of the five most dangerous countries for women � a statistic that dumbfounded him. In his own words, he thought the report was "rubbish". But Google searches revealed otherwise. "There was nothing being done. Delhi, for example, has one of the highest numbers of NGOs in the country but is also the rape capital. There had to be an innovation in the way people dealt with the situation that is getting worse every minute," he says.
"When I was searching for data on violence against women in India, I realised that there was nothing credible available except for the statistics released by the government every year, which you and I both know are highly under-reported. Such statistics also reduce the rapes, violence, harassment, etc to mere numbers and don't stress on what each report and each case stand for. It's very impersonal," he said.
Having worked as an IT professional in Bengaluru and Dubai for four years, the techie in Shemeer decided to take the battle online and onto social networking websites.
Saree for the President
The idea behind maps4aid is not to file a research or documentation project that will sit in the library of a university and be quoted in other dissertations. The campaign is actually a well thought-out three-step project.
The first step, which is on now, is the "awareness phase". "Right now people are logging on to the site, reading about incidents and issues, reporting them and sharing links to the website with others."
The second phase, the saree campaign, will begin on March 14, on the birthday of Irom Sharmila, the activist who has been on a hunger fast to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) for eleven years.
All the verified reports (about 2,000) along with blog entries on violence against women by 100 bloggers will be printed on about 10 sarees. The sarees, along with blog entries in a PDF format and a collection of posters will be sent out to 10 decision makers in the country. "The sarees will be screen-printed using about 80 screens in the next three months. A couple of screens are already ready. They will then be sent to the President to explain the seriousness of the issue and to make a demand for starting active district commissions for helping victims," he explains.
The third step on which Shemeer has already started work is aimed at a long-term solution. He has developed an open source system that can be accessed from anywhere and will register complaints people send via SMS. If the state authorities accept the technology, then everybody from the women's commission to the local police station officials to NGOs will be able to log on to it and see the SMSes people have sent.
It will be open to all and the status of the complaints and what has been done about them will also be available. "The idea is e-governance. A lot of instances go unreported and cases are not solved because there are places in the country where the cops and the media cannot reach. People are also scared to go to a police station because they can't get there or believe that nothing will be done. This will just make things transparent and make authorities more answerable," he feels.
"Not all newspapers in the country can be read (regional etc). Newspapers usually report the same incidents and most other incidents (direct reports from individuals) cannot be included because there is no way to verify them," he explains. To take care of that problem, he started the online initiative VAW Mumbai that allowed people to report first-hand, unverified incidents that NGOs and authorities could look into. Next, the website, with the help of netizens, marked the safer and relatively more dangerous areas in the city for women, and also who and where they could go to in a particular area for help. VAW Delhi will take place this week and Chennai, Pune and Indore, where he has managed to find partners and volunteers, will follow.
The process is time-consuming and requires a lot of help, volunteers and resources, but if Shemeer manages to pull this off and convince the authorities, maps4aid could well be the top platform for reporting and solving incidents of violence against women in India. Who knows, India may just not feature in the next Trust Law report of the five most dangerous places in the world for women.