In anticipation of the annual Reclaim the Night campaign, The Mancunion’s Editor-in-Chief Ella Robinson spoke to the Students’ Union’s Wellbeing and Liberation Officer Celina Pereira.
Celina spoke to us about what to expect at this year’s march, how the SU is improving on last year’s event, and all the exciting events the SU have planned as part of the wider campaign – including a club night in collaboration with Warehouse Project.
For our readers unfamiliar with Reclaim the Night and what it actually entails, in Celina’s words it’s the SU’s “annual campaign against gender-based violence, sexual misconduct, and sexual violence” as well as being “a great opportunity to get out there, get involved in activism, and fight for change”.
As Wellbeing and Liberation Officer, Celina has been leading the campaign planning. She called it “a real privilege” to lead the campaign as she’s been involved with Reclaim since her first year. The march will start in Fallowfield and then proceed down Wilmslow Road, passing through Rusholme before finishing at the Students’ Union building on Oxford Road. Then students will hear from speakers “so people recognise why we’re here, what actions we want to do moving forward, and what change we’re asking for”.
The confirmed speakers include Bev Craig, the Leader of Manchester City Council, Celina herself, and student activist groups and association chairs. The students will do a joint speech to share as many perspectives and experiences as possible.
There will be stalls in SU foyer, from a number pf student societies and support groups including: Resist Rape Culture; UoM Feminist Collective; Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP); and the Women’s, LGBTQ+, and Disabled Association Chairs alongside UoM Wellbeing; Advice and Response; Student Angels and Nightline.
As part of plans to increase accessibility, safe spaces will also be available within the SU building itself. These will be safeguard trained staff and volunteers available to support students. rather than it just being an empty room, as it has been in previous years. Celina recognised that there has been issues with accessibility during previous marches and is committed to improving the event so it’s inclusive for anyone and everyone who might attend. She mentioned she’d been working with Syd King, the SU’s Part-time Officer for disabled students, to ensure there’s designated stops along the routes with staff members present to safely support those who need it.
“Reclaim the Night is a great opportunity to get out there, get involved with student activism, and fight for change”
When asked why Reclaim the Night is an important event, Celina said: “It’s a really important event to raise awareness of the systemic issues that we have. We’ve been doing this event for a really long time which just shows that the problem is still here”. She continued, saying: “Reclaim the Night is such an important period to stop and reflect. Okay, what has changed? What hasn’t changed? Why hasn’t it changed? What can we do?”
Indeed, Reclaim the Night is in its 46th year, having started in 1977 as a response to the Yorkshire Ripper murders and taking place in some form ever since. However, over the years there has been criticism that for such a long-standing movement there is little to show in the way of its achievements, calling into question its effectiveness as a force for change.
Celina disagrees with this perspective, instead choosing to see the issue as “systemic”. “To actually solve the problem [will] take a lot of time, a lot of effort and looking into so many aspects of the issue itself. But Reclaim the Night tends to focus on a specific part of the issue and we try to make our dent in that part, and we try to solve a little bit of it.”
“I do think there’s progress every year, and there is more awareness every year, so we’re walking towards that end goal, that end destination, although we’re not there yet. I feel like we’re walking towards that, which is a good thing.”
Every year the SU chooses a specific theme or campaign to centre Reclaim on and this year is no different. This year’s Reclaim will look at sexual violence on campus, focusing on building a speak-up culture and “calling it by its name”. Celina described this as looking inwards, commenting “we like to see the SU as a little government and our campus is our people and we need to look after them.” She said “we decided to look inwards and think what can we change here, to create a speak up culture to ensure that students can recognise sexual misconduct, and can feel empowered to report it.”
To do this, Celina and the SU have decided to look into the reporting services. “How does it work? How can it be improved? Is it inclusive? Is it accessible?” As part of this, they’ve changed the web page to make it more accessible. It’s now directed more as support for students so they can access the right support on an individual basis. Students also “don’t have to report to launch an investigation, they can report to get support”.
Additionally, the reporting form itself is getting overhauled. As part of the “report to get support” ethos, evidence will remain completely optional but now the web page will include examples of what potential evidence could look like. “For them evidence could be a screenshot of a conversation you had with that person” or even “pictures at a party.”
Whilst evidence is encouraged, Celina is keen to stress that “they aren’t there to question you, they believe in you. They just want to support you”.
Another element of the campaign is sexual violence counselling, an issue Celina is very passionate about. Originally, Celina planned to have the university appoint a specialist sexual violence counsellor to “give interim support between a student reporting and going to St. Mary’s to get more specialist support”. However, the experts explained that it would be really triggering to have victims ‘open up’ to someone only for it to change in a couple weeks.
As it turns out, the current counselling team are all trained help those with sexual trauma and there’s a former St. Mary’s employee on the University of Manchester’s counselling team, so the problem has essentially solved itself. Celina called this experience “a learning curve to understand what is appropriate support? And the answer to that is that it depends on the person completely varies”.
She admitted that “although [she’s] very passionate about women’s safety, [she is] not an expert in sexual violence counselling or what is the best procedure to support someone who has been going through that”.
A further way Celina is taking a wider look at sexual violence, outside of Reclaim the Night, is by making the university’s consent module mandatory although she readily admits this won’t be enough on its own. “We can’t just make something mandatory and hope that will be enough, you know, we’ve got to look into is it actually effective? What does the module actually cover? Is it extra normative, because that can’t be what you give it to all students.”
“I do think there’s progress every year, and there is more awareness every year, so we’re walking towards that end goal, that end destination, and we’re not there yet.”
She says “it’s making sure that the provision of support – in a way the level of training that you’re giving – that it is inclusive, that it is accessible, that it has nuance, that it actually understands a reality that students live in the context of like student life, because a lot of things that we talk about is that the context of sexual violence in the student environment is very different than if you were working somewhere else as an adult, or even in a family context.”
Celina ends her response by saying “I really want to make sure that it has nuance, that it is effective, and that it is something that could actually change the culture at university, because there’s no point of making something mandatory if it’s actually not effective.”
Before we finish the interview, Celina briefly lists some of the satellite events taking place in the build-up to Reclaim the Night. As well as a demonstration, Reclaim the Night also serves as a charity fundraising event and this year the selected charities are Manchester Rape Crisis and Gallup. Celina emphasised the importance of supporting survivors who are not just women but may be a marginalised gender or are LGBT so by supporting both charities Reclaim allows itself to represent all people in need of support on sexual violence.
The biggest, and most exciting, satellite event is the Reclaim the Nightlife club night on November 24 in the Students’ Union building. The event is in collaboration with Warehouse Project who have already donated £10,000 and have also pledged to match all donations given during the campaign. Celina calls this “a great opportunity to expand Reclaim the Night into the city and to the organisations in the city and shape their work as well”.
“I feel like this would be a great opportunity for the Union to have a better relationship with key acts in the city, and just help us deliver safer events and with better artists at the union as well. So I do think this is a really positive thing.”
Celina concludes by appealing to students to come to the march and get involved with the campaign. “It’s a chance to change the culture at the university and being safe is a right, and it’s something that is not reality right now.”
Click here to watch the full interview on FuseTV
Reclaim the Night begins at 6.30pm on November 30 at Owen’s Park
You can buy tickets for Reclaim the Nightlife on manchesteerstudentsunion.com