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Reclaim the Streets

The dust has settled on the launch of this year’s report, at least in the UK and I have had time to think about some of the responses we have had.  As part of our analysis of safety in the city we did a survey in several cities in the UK asking girls and young women here about how safe they felt.  They said much the same thing as girls in India, Ethiopia, Holland and anywhere else we gathered information from – many felt unsafe, many experienced harassment of various sorts – a staggering 42% of girls aged 11-18 in Britain’s largest cities know someone who has been assaulted in their own neighbourhood and 90% girls aged 11-18 think police on the streets would be effective in making them feel safer. Harassment on public transport was a theme all over the world. It was a bleak picture and though violence on the street is not just confined to girls, the sense of sexual vulnerability was very apparent. 

The UK survey results were picked up by lots of local radio stations and I did several interviews.  A common and depressing reaction from the primarily male interviewers was a fairly basic “she asked for it” attitude.  If girls did not go out after dark, they would not be at risk, if they did not dress “like that” they would not be targeted. They saw young women as stumbling about drunk coming out of clubs and, by implication, fair game. One of the stations did a series of vox pops with school girls who talked about going out with their friends and being pursued by men of all ages, it was impossible, they said, to make it clear that they wanted to be left alone, they did not want the attention. Most young women will recognize this.  You go out to have a good time, you don’t want to feel preyed upon, no does mean no. Why should you stay at home after dark – 4pm in the winter – why should the streets of our cities be dangerous and often distressing places – why is the responsibility on the girls?  

The men who interviewed me would, I am sure, have been devastated had their own sisters or girlfriends been attacked.  Why is violence and sexual harassment justifiable because it is dark or because you wear a short skirt and high heels, or because you have had too much to drink. Why should that mean that you want complete strangers to shout at you, follow you or touch you. Why be so unsympathetic to the fear that women and girls experience. I live near a common which is a short cut, along a lit pathway, between various friends’ houses. I resent the fact that I am nearly always too afraid to take the short cut if I am alone in the evening, while my bloke will stride through it almost unthinkingly. Sometimes I make myself do it just to “reclaim the streets” because it makes me angry to be afraid. I feel it is a risk and I don’t enjoy it. I am also quite certain that if I am attacked on one of these trips it will be seen as my fault for taking the risk – walking across a common in the evening!

Sharon Goulds

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