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Women’s public safety is a health issue

17 Mar 2022 | Amy Rew and Dawn Fyfe

Women’s public safety is high on the agenda, but this does not guarantee that any future decisions we take will effectively address the harassment and abuse girls and women experience, often in plain sight of other members of the community. UN Women, United Kingdom found:

  • Over 70% of women in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment in public.
  • Only 3% of women aged 18-24 told us they had not experienced any of the behaviours asked about.
  • The systems in place to reduce violence and harassment are not working.
  • Only 4% of women reported the incident of harassment to an official organisation – with 45% of women saying they didn’t believe reporting would help change anything.

There have been a number of high-profile murders in the past 12 months. Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and more recently Aisling Murphy, and this has focussed attention on the dangers women experience whilst taking part in everyday activities that should be open to all.  

The beginning of Wise Women  

None of this is new. In 1994 Wise Women was established in Glasgow to provide personal safety to women in the city. This personal safety was not from a position of judgement. It did not tell women how to mitigate against male violence and ineffective protection in wider society. It was a personal safety that recognised the reality of women’s lives and explored how they had protected themselves in the past and what they needed to live lives free from fear in the future. 

Women told us the impact this fear had on their lives. High levels of anxiety, restricted movement affecting employability, social lives and activism, to name but a few. Women spoke about harassment in the streets that was humiliating and threatening. Often verbal, sometimes physical. 

Most of the women taking part in the courses live in working-class areas, with few options to change their living circumstances in order to escape ongoing threats, including from neighbours and local services. They spoke of a life where they continuously had to mitigate against male harassment, abuse, and violence.  

For girls and women, the need to mitigate against abuse is not new. From birth, girls are taught by those around them how to restrict their lifestyles, clothing, and journeys, in a misguided attempt to protect them. This does not stop violence and abuse, but only delays where it will take place and who will be affected. Until such times as men who choose to abuse women are restricted and prevented by effective responses within communities, women continue to live these lives. It is exhausting and debilitating.

Equally Safe, Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls recognises this, stating as a priority that: 'Men desist from all forms of violence against women and girls, and perpetrators of such violence receive a robust and effective response'. 

The power of tech for change

Wise Women has joined forces with Glasgow Girls Club to create a women’s safety app. The purpose of the app is to collect women’s experiences of harassment and abuse in public spaces, signpost women to appropriate places and keep women informed about developments in the future.  

The app includes a heatmap from Commonplace that allows women to pinpoint and share their experiences of harassment and abuse. The information will be collated and used to inform decision makers in Glasgow and beyond.   

The role of IT in this project is crucial, not only to increase reach, but it has generated interest that such projects have not seen in the past. The role of digital in social justice and systemic change has really come to the fore in the past two years and this project is a great example of the power of tech for change. The might of tech combined with local grassroots activism has been game changing and will play a critical role in delivering outcomes for women’s safety at a local and city level.   

Commenting on the creation of the app, Amy Rew from Glasgow Girls Club said:

'Creating an independent online safe space for women to report and comment on each other’s experience has been profound. We knew women would be engaged but the level of support between women, we have seen via the platform, shows us that women have felt activated, enabled and connected by the project'.   

Despite the indisputable power of digital in the project, Amy is quick to point out that tech still plays a very small part: 'The major contributors to the success of the survey were the passion and relationships of other grassroots organisations and partners who have helped to ensure the survey received maximum exposure. With limited budget, these groups have made the difference'.   

The Woman’s Safety survey app

The relationship between human and tech powered activism has been precedent, with women from all walks of life, backgrounds, and ages contributing to the survey. The survey has now closed, but in total there were 609 contributions with a wide demographic of participants and results will be available in the next few months.

Read the first blog in this series on gender inequalities.

Read the second blog: Women have a right to the city

Read the fourth blog: Systemic failures contributing to gender inequality

Read the fifth blog: Gender inequalities and intersectionality

The views expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of GCPH.

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