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urban (in)security: freedom to walk

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s famous novel, North and South, Margaret Hale provokes outrage when she takes to the streets of industrialising Manchester. Her perambulations through the poor areas of the city to deliver food to a struggling family receive the condemnation of her male relatives and acquaintances, each absolute in their opinion of the extreme risk she takes by walking alone in the city. Margaret’s solitary wanderings become an act of defiance and her urban travels a synecdoche for the progression of her character throughout the novel.

Despite North and South being written in 1855, the modern woman’s experience of the city is not too different to that of Margaret Hale. Walking alone in the city as a woman is an act of independence—although it’s often considered a foolish one.

Since living on my own, my vulnerability has become starkly apparent. The unsavoury experiences of having a man follow me home from a club, a car stalk me while on a run around my housing estate and needing to run home in the middle of the road at 10pm due to drunk men blocking the pathway, are, I imagine, familiar situations for most women.

Women have long protested against restrictions to their enjoyment of the urban environment. The theme was notably protested in the 1970s by the ‘Reclaim the Night’ movement, which has since spread around the world. A new addition this year is the Nike sponsored Sydney event, She Runs the Night, which promotes women’s enjoyment of night running in safety. On the global stage, the United Nations recently revived earlier ‘safe cities’ projects, now to be focused specifically on women and girls in an interesting approach to aid and development efforts.

Urban insecurity, like most issues, discriminates against those from low-socioeconomic circumstances. If you do not have a car, the risk is greater. Taxis are too expensive to be a practical alternative and public transport usually gives you the questionable benefit of waiting at a deserted station for the late night train or bus that runs infrequently. While poorer women may be more vulnerable, all women act according to a fear that they are automatically at risk due to their sex. I worked for a successful doctor and business owner who would wait for her male partner to collect her from the office and escort her to the underground car park at 8pm. Meanwhile I had to walk through a poorly lit park to get to the train station when I finished an hour later, sans the male companion apparently requisite for my safety.

At the heart of this issue though is the gendered disparity of assault victims. Despite women expressing greater fear and altering their movements accordingly, it is men who are more likely to be assaulted*. How do we reconcile this paradox between women’s perceived insecurity and men’s greater victimization?

It’s difficult to compare the two. Women are told from their childhood of the dangers men pose and thus restriction of access and movement due to fear has largely been accepted as the status quo and necessary ‘street smart’ behaviour for those living in the city (and is presumably part of the reason why the statistics favour women). The public policy approach seems to view the curtailment of women’s movements as an easier fix to the situation than addressing the underlying causes of urban insecurity.

Thankfully there’s been a renewed push for city smart safety measures targeting women. The National Union of Students Women’s Department launched the first Australian survey on women’s safety on university campuses last year. From this survey has come the ‘It’s Time to Demand Safety on Campus’ campaign and petition.

It’s time to overcome the public’s silent acceptance of women’s fear and insecurity on our streets.

By Rebekah Olfield

*This statement refers only to assault in public spaces. Were domestic violence to be included, the statistics would obviously differ significantly. Ref: Carrie L Yodanis, ‘Gender Inequality, Violence against Women, and Fear: A Cross-National Test of the Feminist Theory of Violence against Women’ (2004) 19(6) Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

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