What women really want: safer communities

Photo by Therese McMahon
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Nearly half the young women in a survey of more than 28,000 people in their late teens felt unsafe walking home at night. Therese McMahon reports on a call for change.

The stories that we relate to in the news are often ones that strike a chord with us on a personal level. Generally, it is in the minor details: a common interest, a certain name or a place we frequent. But other times the details can be more pressing, something that galvanises us to feel a certain way. Christina Bricknell knows this experience well.

One Friday evening in June last year, the 24-year-old found herself running to her boyfriend’s house in heavy rain. She was distraught, panting heavily with tears streaming down her face. Her phone had died, she had caught the wrong tram and didn’t know exactly where she was. In that moment, she was acutely aware of two things: her vulnerability and an overwhelming sense of fear.

It had been two-weeks since the tragic murder of Eurydice Dixon in Princess Park and like many of us, Christina had been following the case closely. In some ways, Eurydice had reminded her of herself: she was involved in the arts, they had similar lifestyles and were of a similar age. And now, she was alone in the dark, not far from where the incident had happened.

So, she followed her instincts and ran, gripped by the fear that she was not safe because she was a girl. A fear that many young women in Australia share.

According to Mission Australia’s Youth Survey in 2018, nearly half of young women do not feel safe in their local communities after dark.

The survey, which involved over 28,000 young people aged between 15 and 19, found over 46 per cent of young women felt “unsafe” or “very unsafe” when walking home at night, compared to just 18 per cent of young men. These are statistics that show women are bearing much more anxiety in their daily lives than their male counterparts.

According to a 2018 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, on average one or more women are killed in Australia every week. In some exceptional circumstances, they will be killed by a stranger. However, more frequently it will be by someone known to them. Almost always they will be killed by a man. Tragically, these numbers just represent those who are killed. They do not include the thousands of women who are assaulted, harassed or abused.

More than ever, women’s safety is becoming a real concern in Australian society. Though consequently, there are positive signs of action, particularly in Victoria.

Jessamy Gleeson and Karen Pickering, both feminist activists and academics, have been drawing attention to these crimes and how regularly they happen. The pair hold silent vigils for any women or children who are murdered as a result of violence at the hands of a man.

Their work began in mid-2018 when thousands gathered at a silent night time vigil that they organised for Eurydice Dixon. Jessamy and Karen are now determined to mark the theft of every woman’s life in this same public way. 

With the exception of some of the high-profile cases that have garnered a lot of media attention, such as Eurydice Dixon and Aiia Maasarwe, the turnout for the vigils is typically low. But Jessamy said this is beside the point.

“By holding these vigils each week and marking the death of each woman, it gives people a visual and visible reminder of the scale of the issue,” said Jessamy.

As each life is honoured by Jessamy and Karen, it is done in silence. Jessamy told me that they have chosen to conduct the vigils in silence as it can be a form of resistance. “People associate silence with powerlessness but it’s not. It’s a deliberate choice to remain silent particularly in the face of really strong emotions. It sends a really powerful message.”

While it is a distinctly different approach to what we typically consider a “protest”, it is exactly what these actions are, while simultaneously affording the victim a level of respect.

Jessamy Gleeson from We Keep Vigil. Photo Therese McMahon.

Jessamy believes that if we want change, we must attack it on multiple levels concurrently, “We can’t just expect change to come from a law that says no violence against women because that’s just not going to work.”

“What will work is if we draw attention to these issue, in whatever way that may be, and give people the incentives to change.”

Another issue associated with these deaths is victim blaming. With public criticism often suggesting that these women were complicit in their own deaths because “she was catching the tram late at night” or “she chose to stay with him”. Jessamy explained that it is much easier for people to put the onus back on the woman for not having done more to protect herself, rather on the man for committing the violence.

‘The truth is, we’ve got to change our entire cultural understanding,”
Jessamy said.

“This will require action, re-educating and an openness to change. And it will take many generations.”

The Victorian Women’s Trust is another group doing the important work of drawing attention to the issue of women’s safety. The independent body who advocate for women and girls have committed their entire Small Grants Program towards safety this year.

The grants will go to organisations that work with women and girls in Victoria, to fund steps towards enabling women to participate fully in society and creating a safer future.

Claire Duffy, a project officer from Victorian Women’s Trust, said, “it is abundantly clear that targeted investment is urgently needed towards safety in society.”

“There are a million different ways women experience fear in society,” she said.

She described the many ways women constantly have to check themselves, citing thoughts like: Have I got enough clothes on? Have I spoken or laughed too loudly? Is it safe to walk home or should I catch an Uber? Should I keep someone on standby to call just in case something happens tonight?

But she also lamented that this was not exclusive to women out in public or in the work place but that so many women don’t feel safe in their own homes.

According to the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare, family violence is now the biggest health risk in Australia. And that’s before smoking, alcohol and obesity.

The reality is that the family violence sector has always been chronically underfunded and there are significant gaps emerging in Victoria. This is why organisations like VWT have had to step in.

“Safety is more nuanced than what most people assume,” Claire said. “Women interpret the idea of safety in so many ways and this has been reflected in the applications we have received for our grants program.”

“Some women see safety as being physically safe, so knowing how to protect themselves with self-defence. Some women see it as being emotionally safe, so free from abuse. And other women see safety as being able to speak up in a boardroom or being equipped with knowledge to manage their finances.”

“Feeling unsafe is a huge mental and emotional burden for women to bear,” Claire said. “And as long as women are not safe in society, they will never be equal with men.”

Howard Kimber, founder of Fight Back Self Defence, is another person taking actionable steps to make women feel safe in our communities. He runs short self-defence courses around Victoria for women, teaching them effective and practical ways to defend themselves if ever necessary.

“Flight back is about empowerment and confidence, not fear,” Howard said. After the deaths of Eurydice and Aiia, enquiries about Flight Back Self-defence doubled over night. Many of the enquires were from parents of girls from Melbourne University, who live interstate but were aware that Princess Park is just over the road.

There has also been a big lift in enquiries from employers, as people are feeling more responsible for their employees. Particularly for women who need to travel home from work late at night. 

Howard Kimber from Fight back Self-defence. Photo Therese McMahon.

“Random violence is a huge motivator for women and people close to women, to worry about their safety. I suppose it’s because a lot of women can identify and be identified with the victims. In a sense, it could have been them,” Howard said.

Through his work, Howard has observed an addressing of societies historical acceptance of violence. He sees that women are trying to, and want to, feel safe.

“With things like #metoo, which is a verbal movement, I think people are starting to realise that power is a lot closer than they thought it was. That you don’t need to go off and do thirty years of marital arts. You just need to do something,” he said.

Much like Jessamy, Karen and the Victorian Women’s Trust, Howard acknowledges that his effort is not a panacea and will not eradicate male violence, inequality or women’s fear. But he does believe it is a step in the right direction. “We must actively educate people and do things that will create change. That is what will make the difference” he said.