2,500 students took to the streets of Manchester on Thursday 23rd of February to ‘Reclaim the Night’, protesting the prevalence of violence against women, street harassment and victim blaming.
The annual march from the student area of Fallowfield to the University of Manchester Students’ Union was attended by a range of student and non-student representatives, led by a women-only bloc. There was also a LGBT block, a youth and families block, and a Muslim block.
The number of students attending was down on previous years, with 2016’s march attracting 3,500 students, but reduced numbers have been blamed on Storm Doris.
The march ended with a rally in the Contact Theatre car park, where Councillor Sarah Judge, the lead member from Manchester City Council on all women’s services, spoke of the fact that “across our city we still have stats like a third of women experience domestic violence, the rape crime reporting rates are so low, yet we all know it’s happening everywhere. This has to change”.
The Mancunion and Fuse FM spoke with some of the people on the march to find out why they were there and why they believed events like Reclaim the Night were so important.
Naa Acquah, General Secretary of the University of Manchester Students’ Union, told us she believed it was “really important that we keep doing this every single year.”
It was her fourth Reclaim the Night, and she explained how “every year it just gives you that real empowerment to take back the streets.”
Saffa Mir, Community Officer at the Students’ Union, said she was marching at Reclaim the Night, in particularly the Muslim bloc, “because we believe our voices are being silenced, and we’re here to show that we, as Muslim women, do have a voice”.
When asked if she believed Manchester’s streets were safe she responded: “No. Certain streets, especially the ones we’re about to walk down now, are not safe at all, they’re not safe from catcalls, sexual violence, sexual harassment, not all at all — and we’re here to tackle that”.
One girl, when asked why she was marching, said it was because she had been raped by her ex-boyfriend.
But she added that she thought it was great “when people do this, it makes you feel so much better to see you’re not alone.”
Personal experiences of sexual violence or assault were brought up by a number of women at the march, with women speaking about being followed to their doors, groped in broad daylight and catcalled on the streets.
Most spoke of feeling vulnerable and unsafe alone, particularly within Fallowfield and along the Curry Mile. Emma, a University of Manchester student, said: “It would be nice to not always have that bit at the back of your mind, saying ‘what if’, and always being on guard”. Another student added that women should not have to “change their lifestyle because of the fear of being attacked.”
One female student told us she was marching because “it’s time that women feel comfortable to walk around by themselves — because we’re not sexual objects, we’re people.”
The march was disrupted towards the end by a group of young people throwing things into the crowd and heckling.
Responding to this incident student Ella said: “It’s sad because they feel that they can’t do anything, because especially when you look at the black community, especially black men, there’s a big divide and it’s viewed as if feminism is destroying the black community. And looking around here there aren’t a lot of black women. I feel there could be a better outreach to the black community here.”
We spoke with some of those watching the march pass through Curry Mile, including Tony and Anton who were watching from H&D Hair Design. They had not heard about the protest before, and when asked whether they thought protests about sexual violence were necessary, they responded simply, “look at what’s happening — there must be something wrong if everyone is out like this”.
They added that they believed “these things have got to happen, and the voices have to be heard to let people know what’s going on, with all the things that are going on in this world.”
Not everyone on the march believed it was an effective way to tackle the issues, Kritik Patel, a Genetics student, said: “I don’t actually think Reclaim the Night does anything useful.”
When asked why, he said: “Because it’s just one night. And the issues that they are campaigning on tonight are important, but it’s only done once a year. It should be more of a sustained direct action, like more demonstrations, more campaigning on campus, on issues like more lighting on streets, against catcalling”.
Despite this, most of the people we spoke with spoke of the march as a means to raise awareness of the issue, including Helen Clegg, third year and founder of the newly formed Feminist Society at Salford University, who said “if we shout about it enough then people will pay attention.”
After the march, Jenni Smyth, Women’s Officer for the University of Manchester Students’ Union expressed a huge thank you on Facebook “to all 2500 of you who braved storm Doris and came out to Reclaim the Night. Together we raised our collective voices and filled the City with noise, colour and light as we said NO! to sexual violence, street harassment and victim blaming”.