Women and young girls physical safety explored: POLLY
The Pressures on Mental and Physical Safety
The tragic kidnap and murder of 33-year old Sarah Everard in South London have sent shockwaves of fear and anger to women in the UK. Women want more to be done to tackle violence against them, and the subsequent anxiety it can cause is twofold - fear of not being protected properly and fear of what may happen to them as they go about their daily lives. As we hope to see the pandemic restrictions ease over the next few months and we go back to our “new normal”, how will fear and anxiety impact the ability of women and girls to return to normality?
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Reclaim the Streets
In 2019 almost half of the women said they didn’t feel safe walking home alone at night.
Met Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, said “it is incredibly rare for women to be abducted from our streets.”
The figures highlight that 1 in 5 killings between 2019 - 2020 was of women.
Men were more likely to be the victim of a violent assault (1.3% of the victims are women and 2% are men).
Although this may be encouraging for some, the reality of what happened is still worrying.
We are told from a young age as women to be alert, and take precautions, when we’re out, to protect our safety.
1 in 3 women takes extra precautions to protect themselves by not walking on their own, avoiding certain areas or not walking alone at certain times.
But how can we learn from the story of Sarah Everard when she did the above?
Sarah walked on a well-lit road, she was on the phone, and yet she didn’t make it home. It’s shocking to find that during the same time Sarah vanished and her remains were found, a further six women and a little girl were reported killed.
Anxiety-Inducing Media and the Effect of OnDemand News
Women feel increasingly unsafe when particular stories are constantly in the press and circled around social media. Crime dramas are popular because we can view these types of events in a “controlled environment” but when they are on our doorstep, the reality of them is too much. Sensational headlines grab readers' attention so media outlets will focus on reporting on negative stories but when we’re exposed to negative news our bodies release different hormones that can make us feel stressed.
As we turn to social media to learn more about the stories, we’re exposed to an abundance of opinions and the risk of fake news. We already know that social media has an impact on our mental health as seeing other people's lives puts pressure on how we think we “should” think / look/feel. But when it comes to social media and trying to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake in the news world it can also have an impact on our mental and physical health - again, making us feel mentally stressed.
How has Safety on the Streets Changed in the Last 50 or so Years?
On the 13th of March, women turned to a nationwide campaign to Reclaim the Streets to get that control back. It echoed the concern of women in the 70s who wanted to Reclaim the Night as Peter Sutcliffe murdered 13 women. It’s hard to believe that 40 years later we are asking for the same thing.
At the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, curfews were put in place and women were told to stay at home for their own safety. While staying home may be a comfort to some, some women don’t have a safe haven for a home.
In the first 3 weeks of lockdown murder figures were 3 times higher than usual (14 women and 2 children sadly lost their lives) (according to data by RESPECT) while calls to the Domestic Violence Abuse Helpline soared by 80%.
The long-term effects of domestic violence have a considerable impact on mental health.
Almost half of women who have suffered domestic violence reported mental or emotional problems as an effect of the abuse.
Sexual Harassment and Female Safety Measures
Much of the anger expressed over the last few weeks has been driven by the harassment women and girls face daily. UK crime figures highlight women are most likely to be the victim of a sexual assault. The UN Women UK reported almost all young women in the UK have experienced some aspect of sexual harassment or abuse in their lifetime (97% of 18-24-year-old respondents) while 80% of women have been sexually harassed in a public space.
The justice system shows low conviction rates when it comes to prosecutions for rape. For example, prosecutions for rape in the UK were at 37% in 2018. Furthermore, by the end of 2018, there were 6,355 victims on Rape Crisis waiting lists and waiting for counseling services anywhere between 3-14 months (APPG). As many as 33% of students didn’t know where to get support if they were to become a victim of sexual assault.
Most sexual assaults do not get solved and in a YouGov poll of more than 1,000 women, 96% who had experienced sexual harassment had not reported it, because they felt it wasn’t bad enough or that nothing would be done to resolve it. And when conviction rates are so low for rape crimes, this isn’t surprising. By the end of 2018, there were 6,355 victims on Rape Crisis waiting lists waiting for counseling services that could be anywhere between 3-14 months (APPG).
The truth of the matter is many people have historically normalised this behaviour: the catcalling in the streets, unwanted touching on the tube, the dated perception that a woman’s body in a public place is merely public property.
Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, says, “ We have to shatter that normalisation through policy and in the press if we want to change the picture”
What Is the Impact of Safety on Emotional Wellbeing?
It’s no revelation to say the world we live in today is unpredictable and uncertain. The pressures of the pandemic have increased anxiety felt by women. There’s no question that recent news and events will also have an impact on how we feel about returning to life after COVID-19: how we visit friends and family, go to the pub, a concert, cinema when we may have to travel alone at night.
The truth is violent attacks on women do happen.
Domestic violence is on the rise.
All women have faced some form of sexual harassment in their lives.
No one knows what’s around the corner. We don’t know if we have fully managed the pandemic to avoid going back into another lockdown. If the person walking near us as we walk home is a threat. We don’t know if a new romantic relationship may lead to violence. If policies change to make our streets and homes safer, the mental impact these cases and figures have on women will need to be considered too. Our safety and trust to go out need to be improved to keep levels of anxiety down.
The fear of the unknown will be the driving factor in our ability to return to a “normal” life. So as you may be excited for the country to open up, it’s OK to feel uncertainty. As women up and down the country petition to tackle violence towards women it’s important to remember the resulting woman's mental health issues are just as challenging.
Note about the author: Daisy is a long-standing volunteer with Polly. She is passionate about supporting Polly and helping women and girls around the UK get the support they deserve.