Friday, 29 May 2015

How to make women feel safer

Monica provides some thoughts on how we can make each other feel safer in public, particularly at night. 

We’ve heard a bunch of commentary in the past few weeks about how women can be safer when they are out and about, particularly by themselves.   

The conversation isn’t new.  

That women feel and are unsafe outside the home - and tragically, inside it - comes of no surprise to anyone (well, at least not to women). 

We even have events like Reclaim the Night which occur for women to take back the dark, of which they have become so afraid.

It’s not new.

But the trigger seems to be the comments of Detective Inspector Michael Hughes, who spoke after the brutal, daylight murder of teenager Masa Vukotic. Detective Inspector Hughes said: 

"I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn't be alone in parks - I'm sorry to say that, that is the case.  We just need to be a little bit more careful, a little bit more security-conscious and we as a public need to look after each other."

This comment was criticised for putting the onus on women to ensure they are not attacked, instead of addressing it as a matter of gender violence.  

It has been said that it was “victim-blaming”.  I don’t think it was (unlike the Melbourne priest who told a group of school students that if Jill Meagher’s faith was stronger, she would have been home in bed and not walking along the Melbourne street where she was attacked, raped and murdered...  that was victim-blaming!)

I understand the criticisms of Detective Inspector Hughes and others who tell women to take precautions, but I think that they are somewhat of a waste of energy.

Yes, it would be better if violent attacks just didn’t happen. Yes, women shouldn’t have to take extra care just because some people (mostly men) are violent.

But if we were to stop the conversation there, nothing would change and women would be no safer at night. If we bicker about who is responsible for the safety of women, we miss the part of the conversation which asks: “What can I do?”

I have a few examples of what we can do.

One night not too long ago, I was walking back to my car, which was in a carpark in a laneway which gets very quiet (and dark) in the evening. The carpark itself is secure. You have to swipe an access pass to open the giant roller door at the entry, and this is the only after-hours access to the site, so I am confident that the only people in there at night are those who have accessed the site legitimately.

On this particular evening though, a man walked in behind me, not needing to swipe because I already had. The lifts never seem to work in the car park, so I had to walk the couple of levels up to my car. He was behind me the whole time.

My mind began to race.

Do I walk to my car, or would that put me at a risk of carjackingIf I didn’t, where would I go?

Is there a way that I could have prevented him from following me into the carpark that I didn’t think of? 

I had my phone tightly gripped in my hand, but with no-one around and a swipe card being needed to get in, how could anyone come to my aid even if I did call for help?

Then I heard him call out to me.

“Excuse me”, he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that walking in behind you might frighten you. I can hear your footsteps getting faster. Please don’t be scared. My car is parked just over there.”

He pressed the unlock button on his keys so I could identify his car (and be convinced that he was being truthful).

Those few words turned a moment of panic into a moment of peace.

Yes, a very charming potential attacker might have used similar words, and the danger would have been the same.
But in that moment, this man recognised that a woman who was alone and at night might be terrified even by the presence of an unknown man. He chose to do what he could to put me at ease, and I was grateful.

On another evening, I was approached by man on a train. He was just trying to have a conversation, but because it was very late, he stood very close and was also very drunkI was nervous. 

Immediately, a group of young guys stood up. Two of them went over to the intoxicated man and said something like: 
“Hey mate, why don’t you come over and chat to us and not this young lady?” The other two sat in the seat closest to me, and assured me I would get to my station safely.  

Their perception not only made me safer, but made me feel safe

And a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues was out walking with her husband when a young woman who was out walking on her own asked if they would mind if she walked a few steps behind them because it was getting dark.  They invited her to walk with them instead.

This woman’s bravery in speaking up when she felt unsafe meant that she walked a little more comfortably that night, and it also means that my colleague now offers any women out for a stroll on their own to join her.

This incident did not only make one young woman feel saferit will make others safer in the future.

What each of these examples tells me is that we all have the ability – and so the responsibility – to make this better. We just need to be a little more perceptive.

For men and women, it means realising women on their own often feel afraid and doing or saying something to calm those fears.

It means we need to be aware of our surroundings and be conscious of others. It means we need to be neighbourly. Or simply just live up to what our mothers taught us, that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.

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