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On 26th February 2015 over 2,000 people attended Reclaim The Night Manchester, a march campaigning against street harassment and sexual violence towards women. The protest’s size and strength sent a firm message that the people of Manchester, and the North West, say NO to street harassment and sexual violence towards women.
#ReclaimTheNightMCR is part of a longer legacy than I expected. Reclaim The Night started in the UK in November 1977 having been inspired by a series of marches called ‘Take Back The Night’ coordinated by women in Germany earlier the same year. The marches were also a result of many women being incensed by the police and press reaction to the serial sexual attacks and murders of women in Leeds by Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, between 1975 and 1980. The police response was to tell women not to go out at night, effectively putting them under curfew.
“When they say our skirts are too short, we say ‘Don’t Rape’”.
Now, Reader, if you’re not a dim-witted moron you’re likely to be sitting there thinking, “Oh gosh, what an archaic response to sexual assault, I’m glad they don’t blame victims like that anymore.” But sadly, you’d be sorely mistaken. 40 years on, following a string of violent sexual attacks towards women in Manchester last year, Greater Manchester Police issued a statement advising women of what to do to avoid being assaulted. You can read the full article about it here but my good friend Hannah, a current first year student at the University of Manchester, succinctly pointed out what was wrong with the GMP’s statement at the time:
Oh great – I’ll just use my common-sense then. Simply. So no leaving the house after nightfall, jeez, what was I thinking? How about I just stay indoors 24/7 to ward off daytime attacks, sound good? I’m presuming you also mean that short skirts are out of the picture too, heaven forbid I should be able to wear what I want to in 20-bloody-15. Or better yet, shall I just pull a full Mulan, cut my hair, bind my breasts and hide the fact that I’m female in order to walk the streets without being assaulted or worse and then chastised for it too? Or does that sound just a little bit ridiculous to anybody else?
“When they say watch our drink, we say ‘Don’t Rape’”.
What’s scarier is that this isn’t a one-off fuck up. Responses like this from the police, an institution that should protect victims and prevent criminals from committing atrocious acts, perpetuate the cycle of abuse. In addition, the horrific trauma of victim blaming we see in the media reinforces the crazy notion that victims of sexual assault are somehow involved in, or ‘asking for’, their attacks.The fact that anybody gives a semblance of a shit about convicted rapist Ched Evans’ future career options more than the feelings or trauma of his victim is beyond me.
We are living in a world where everyday sexism; a ‘cheeky grope’ in a club, unwelcome whistles or catcalls in the street, the unwanted escort home by a stranger after a night out and far worse are less offensive to some people than the length of a girl’s skirt, her drinking habits or sexual history.
As though these things even matter to a rapist anyway…
12,000 men and 85,000 women are raped, and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted, on average in England and Wales every year according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Home Office’s first ever joint Official Statistics bulletin on sexual violence, entitled An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, released in 2013. The bulletin also reported that 1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. (1)
And yet, with these numbers reaching epidemic proportions, according to the same report, “only 1,070 rapists are convicted of their crime – despite the fact that 12,000 men and 85,000 women on average are raped in England and Wales every year”. (2)
If we do the maths that’s approximately a 1.1% conviction rate when you include male victims and 1.25% when you don’t. And THAT percentage only takes into account the 15% of female victims affected by sexual violence who report it to the police. So you tell me how the other 85 out of 100 victims are meant to feel safe and confident enough in the justice system to come forward when the rate of conviction is so shockingly low, and they’ll likely suffer the trauma of victim blaming anyway?
That’s why we need to reclaim the night. All of us. Women are taught to live in fear. From a young age we are programmed to police ourselves against assault. To have a ‘healthy fear’ of walking alone at night. To quote the Greater Manchester police again, women are taught to ‘use common-sense’ precautions, avoid dimly-lit streets or be chaperoned – and apparently take the blame if we dare not. On 26th February 2015 over 2,000 men and women took to the streets of Manchester to light them up, fill them with noise and Reclaim The Night in the name of gender equality, an end to street harassment and intimidation, and justice for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
The after party, which required a venue change in order to fit us all in, was inspiring to say the least. Jess Lishak, the women’s officer at the University of Manchester Student Union, gave a rallying speech to rapturous applause, thus confirming that the night was a success that couldn’t be ignored. I’ll post a link to Lishak’s speech below. Following this were powerful and informative speeches from survivors; Ellie Muffitt, journalist and ex student and Liz Cameron, a trade union activist. We also heard poetry and lovely words that reduced me to a crying mess (in a good way!) from Ellis Hall, Roma Havers and Stirred Poetry Feminist Collective. Not forgetting music from Emma Runswick, the all-female She Choir, the barbershop-stylings of Supernova and of course Claire Mooney – all followed by a DJ set until 2am from Sian Bennett.
Reclaim The Night 2015 was a cathartic, emotional and beautiful event for me – feeling united with so many others instead of feeling alone was uplifting and positive. I marched for survivors of rape and victims of sexual assault. I marched for myself because having tits shouldn’t make me a target. For my wonderful mother, who worries so much for the safety of her children, irrespective of their gender. For my cousins who are fearful of walking alone at night. For my brothers, dad, uncle and new baby nephew who teach and remind me everyday that the men who commit these violent acts are not all men. For the safety of my friends both male and female. For every conscious feminist fighting this uphill struggle towards a more compassionate world and for every man and woman who has not yet seen the light and identified as an equal-minded, feminist, human – I want you to live in a more beautiful and accepting world, even if you don’t.
Ironically, after taking part in a march against street harassment, my lovely mum still had to text me to make sure I’d gotten home okay. I don’t want her to worry anymore.
I’ll be getting involved in the campaign and tweeting about it a lot here: @KateMenear.
Watch Lishak’s speech from the night:
Watch this video footage from the event by We Are Invite:
For more information about Rape and Sexual Assault support visit Rape Crisis UK here.