I was woken by my little sister at 2.30am last Saturday. She’d finished her shift at the pub she works at to find herself confronted with eight men shouting lewd sexual comments at her as she waited for her bus. She phoned me in fear; a fear that the majority of women can relate to. A fear that this time, the sexual harassment that is a day to day reality for so many women would turn into an attack. “I know it’s just a matter of time before it’s me”, she said. “It’s like a ticking timebomb”. My sister isn’t alone. The 2010 NUS Hidden Marks study showed that 68% of respondents had been a victim of one or more kinds of sexual harassment during their time as a student, with 1 in 7 a victim of a serious sexual assault.
As Women’s Officer, I hear from women students all the time telling me about how unsafe they feel at night. How they don’t want to stop in the library past dusk, how they won’t even go to the shops without enough money for a taxi there and back. I’ve even heard stories of women running from the bus stop to their front door in case they’re attacked. A recent survey by More found that 95% of women don’t feel safe on the streets at night. 73% worry about being raped, and almost half sometimes don’t want to go out because they fear for their safety. We know that the vast majority of sexual violence against women does not occur at the hands of strangers in the street. According to Home Office statistics, nearly half of rapes are committed by partners, and ‘only’ 8% by complete strangers. Yet with as many as 80,000 women raped annually in the UK, according to the British Crime Survey, this accounts for 6,400 women. No rape is just a statistic. Women shouldn’t have to live in fear.
Meanwhile, pervasive messages from the mainstream media, police and politicians place the blame on women for men’s violence. When Australian Jill Meagher went missing and was subsequently found raped and murdered after walking home from after-work drinks in October, the media reported that she was “obviously drunk” and that “the consequences followed her.”
No-one could have missed the high profile case of ‘Damini’, the Indian woman brutally gang-raped and murdered in Delhi and the national outrage that followed this. Among the outpourings of anger and grief, Indian politicians blamed the victim herself, referring to her “adventurous spirit” and holding her “equally responsible” because she did not stop her attackers. In a 2005 Amnesty International survey, more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, while 1 in 20 believed a woman was totally responsible for being raped if she walked home alone at night. Either directly or indirectly, women are conditioned to believe that public space is a male domain – even more so after dark. The question is, what can we do about it?
Every year, women students propose new ways to make each other feel safer. As a community, we can take action. On Thursday, 21st February, I invite you all to come together for Reclaim the Night, a march to demonstrate women’s right to walk the streets at night free from sexual violence, street harassment and assault. From humble beginnings back in the mid-1970s, Reclaim the Night has become an international phenomenon, with events happening all over the world. The Manchester march starts at Owens’ Park, Fallowfield at 7pm, and a neon parade full of colour, light and sound will head to the Students’ Union. The evening continues with the Reclaim the Night After Party, a festival of the finest women talent, including X Factor finalist Misha B, SheChoir, comedian Kate Smurthwaite and a host of women performers.
This is just the beginning. One march is not going to end sexual violence. Reclaim the Night will no doubt raise awareness and educate people, but we need to mobilise and take action. After Reclaim the Night, I will be supporting women students to set up a society to campaign against sexual harassment. Together, we can not only continue to raise awareness of this problem, but make real changes to women’s lives, be it on campus, in Manchester or in wider society. If you’re a man reading this, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you! Men have a role to play too. Any man who cares about equality should care about violence against women, and it would be great to see men campaigning too.
Ultimately, my sister shouldn’t have to put up with this, and neither should you. We shouldn’t have to live our lives hyperaware of the possibilities of sexual assault and sexual violence. Let’s light up the city, take to the streets, and on the 21st February, let’s Reclaim the Night.
*Reclaim the Night is a free event; tickets for the After Party are £3 in advance and are available from the Students’ Union website at http://www.manchesterstudentsunion.com/reclaimthenight
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