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Opinion – Women shouldn’t solely be responsible for their safety

After the deaths of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard rang alarm bells across the UK, women have found themselves questioning why it’s still all on us to keep safe at night.

The day I first moved to London when I was 17, I remember how excited I felt about finally getting to live independently.

My granddad offered to help and brought a small gift with him on moving day. It wasn’t a map of London or a baby cactus for my tiny window sill — it was a personal white alarm.

‘You’re going to need this on your runs, Livvy,’ I remember him saying, with a slightly wary look in his eyes. ‘In fact, you should probably take it everywhere you go, you never know when it might come in handy.’

Those words have stayed with me since that day in September 2018 and my tiny white alarm is never more than three feet away from me. I must confess, however, that as I grew more accustomed to the ways of London it became less daunting to walk around alone and I started to let my guard down.

I found myself going home alone in the pitch black dark and dating strangers I met on apps without having to think of the worst possible outcomes.

It wasn’t really until one of my Bumble dates turned unpleasant, when I witnessed a woman being mugged before me, and when the faces of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa appeared on the headlines that the fear resurfaced.

After the disappearance of Everard in March, a survey carried out by the European Social Survey found that while 32% of women in the UK feel unsafe or very unsafe when walking alone in their local area at night, 13% of men expressed the same worry.

This has significantly dropped since 2003 when the same survey found that 52% of female respondents felt unsafe.

Although the trend is getting better, it’s not enough. Especially when you see that women still feel between 2.5 and 5.7 times more unsafe than men across the whole of Europe.

Mansi Vithlani, a 21-year-old Leicester student based in London, says that while she doesn’t usually carry any protective gear around with her, she’ll often feel the need to cling to her belongings for comfort in the dark.

‘A few of my closest friends have my location so they know where I am, and when I get home I always text my friends so they know I’m safe,’ she says. ‘It is comforting to call one another when we walk home and if people walk by they won’t bother us because we’re deep in conversation.’

Sometimes though, Vithlani has felt the need to cancel events because she has no way of getting home safely.

Vidushi Samarasinghe, a Milanese student based in London, usually holds onto her keys for protection. She too has cancelled events purely because she didn’t have anyone to stay with and feared for the journey home.

While the 21-year-old hasn’t been stalked, harassment on the street by men – whether it is day or night – is pretty much a normal thing to her.

According to children’s charity Plan International, 66% of girls aged 14 to 21 experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public place in 2018.

I first experienced street harassment when I was 13. What was shocking to me wasn’t my age, but the age of the boys who chased me, who were between nine and 11 years old. I remember running home to my mother in tears, confused and traumatised.

Since then, it’s been years of catcalling and wandering eyes, so much so that I question a man who doesn’t whistle at me from his car.

This made me wonder whether men have ever felt the need to run home — to feel hunted by the opposite gender.

‘No, I don’t feel the need to bring protection with me, nor have I ever felt stalked in London,’ says Haroon Hamid, a student based in Brighton. Meanwhile, Hamid has felt the need to walk his girlfriend home because he is afraid that another man might hurt or kidnap her.

And what can be done to solve this issue? Is it giving men a curfew? The same curfew that women unknowingly follow every day?

‘No, that’s ridiculous,’ says Hamid. ‘Especially after lockdown showed that domestic violence shoots up when men are kept indoors.’

From March to May 2020, the Office for National Statistics reported a 12% increase in the number of domestic abuse cases referred to victim support. Between April and June 2020, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline received a further 65% increase in calls compared to the first three months of last year.

Hamid says that lighting up the streets, making more bus routes have more frequent night times, and implementing more surveillance could be some short-term ways to address the issue of street violence towards women.

In June, the government chose 40 areas to share over £18 million to help make streets safer and crack down on neighbourhood crime through something called the Safer Streets Fund.

Further upping public transport and implementing street lighting will constantly need funding however, and CCTV brings up the big question of privacy rights. Even with more cameras, there are ways around getting caught on tape.

Men could also work to be more conscious around women and make them feel safer by avoiding getting within close proximity of them at night time, suggests Hamid.

‘If I see a woman walking in front of me at night, I will cross the road, walk really quickly, and then walk in front of her,’ Hamid notes. ‘That way, she knows I’m not following her.’

Cutting the problem at its roots is probably the most effective of solutions, though, Hamid says. To keep women safe, not just make them feel safe, a sustainable long term solution could be to teach children how to be more ethical and respect one another from an early age.

Hamid says that with religion being phased out as an ethical education choice in schools, there is space to implement subjects such as philosophy and psychology, which could tackle the issue of violence very early on in life.

With that to happen, however, we need a whole system change. We need teachers to be trained again, parents to be willing to get their children involved in these subjects, and we need curriculums to be designed to encourage young people to love, not fear one another.

Every time I go to visit my grandad in his isolated house in the countryside, he’ll ask me about that little white alarm. While unfortunately, in the three years that have passed, I have graduated, entered full-time employment and witnessed a global pandemic unfold, I can’t say a lot has changed for women’s safety.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t still change though.

If you want to start having a voice in that change, there are numerous online campaigns you can sign up to, such as End Violence Against Women. You can also talk to your local MPs, discuss bringing in more local lighting and putting together more neighbourhood watches.

We could even start a campaign to alter the way young people are taught about different genders, religions, sexualities and ethnicities, so that differences aren’t targeted, but loved.