Making change happen for women and girls
Last week I had the privilege to speak at Exeter University at the launch of the city’s Safety of Women at Night (SWaN) charter.
A series of very high profile cases where women have been the victims of horrendous violence, both locally and nationally, have brought into sharp focus the need for society to think about its response to violence against women and girls.
The charter is one of seven pieces of work carried out by the SWaN project – which is funded through the Government’s Safety of Women at Night fund – which build on existing initiatives in the city to address issues that are being face by women when visiting, particularly at night.
By working strategically with our partners, and by listening to the voices of women and girls across Devon and Cornwall, we are getting a very clear picture of what is expected of those of us who can make change happen.
The results of a national survey held last year showed that 78% of women who had not experienced harassment themselves didn't feel safe in parks and open spaces. That figure rose to 89% in those who had been a victim of harassment.
Exeter’s SWaN charter has been informed by a comprehensive survey carried out in the city last month. It has proved invaluable to better understand the experiences of those who have been victims and what will make them feel safer.
A similar survey has been undertaken in Plymouth by its Violence Against Women and Girls Commission and I await the results with interest, but in Exeter the results have already been published – and they do not make good reading.
I have included some of the things women said in this blog.
What women said: “Involve women and girls in decision making from the start. Stop speaking for us! However well intended, you just can’t understand what it feels like to constantly feel unsafe just going about your daily business.”
Of 1,500 women polled over 86% said they felt unsafe when alone in the city at night.
On top of that a quarter said they had been affected by a sexual offence and a third said they have been harassed in the last three years.
Respondents said they were more likely to feel unsafe in outside spaces, such as making their way home or moving between establishments.
What women said: “Until men stop attacking women, women won’t feel safe, the focus needs to be on how men can make women feel safe and not on women changing their behaviours.”
Drunken and aggressive behaviour and the presence of gangs were also key factors that concerned respondents, but many also said they wanted to see more police officers on the streets.
This highlights the difficulty police have in both assessing the level of fear and, subsequently, reducing that fear because just 14.4% of respondents said they were likely to report their fears to police.
What women said: “If women are attacked, they are afraid of going to the police because of not being believed or being subjected to poor comments. They need to be more liaison officers for women to trust with their story.”
So, in both Exeter through the SWaN project, and Plymouth, through the Commission, there is a big job to do in educating the public about the importance of reporting incidents to the police.
I know a lot of young women don’t have the confidence to come forward and report to the police – and that is understandable given the shocking conviction rate for sexual offences and the media coverage around tragic murders of women in Exeter and Plymouth.
But, whether we like it or not, police resources are focussed on those crimes for which we have evidence that proves they are blighting our communities.
What women said: “If the results of this survey ask for better lighting and more police on streets, or whatever, actually implement it!”
When evidence shows there is a pattern the chief constable can ask for additional resource to improve the police response to that problem so, in short, more reporting really does make a big difference.
Having said that there are lots of places to access private support without feeling the need to go to the police and I don't think enough people know that anyone can self-refer to a sexual assault referral centre no matter when that offence occurred.
What women said: “Keep VAWG as a priority. Continue to market what is being done, what help is there. Push for local/national funding to create new and develop existing initiatives.”
All this important local work gives us the ammunition we need to lobby for fundamental change on a national stage, which is vitally important because, what we're doing now isn't working well enough and women still don't feel safe on our streets, in our open spaces and often in our homes.
Useful contacts for women and girls
If you are in danger call 999. In a non-emergency use the webchat facility on the police website here Home | Devon and Cornwall Police (devon-cornwall.police.uk), email https://www.devon-cornwall.police.uk/contact/contact-forms/101-non-emergency/ or ring 101
For more details about the Sexual Assault Referral Centre visit Get help - Devon & Cornwall SARC - NDHT NHS (sarchelp.co.uk) or call 0300 3034626
If you want to anonymously report a place where you have felt unsafe you can do so here: StreetSafe | Police.uk (www.police.uk)