Since the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in London in March, 2021, there has been a widespread discussion on social media about women’s experiences in the city, their safety and fear of crime. Women have shared their stories of experiencing sexual harassment and violence, their struggles and coping skills. Such skills include going home early, wearing shoes in which you can easily run away, holding keys in between your fingers, pretending to make a phone call or choosing well-lit streets. Even though women have to master these skills, such cases as that of Everard still happen every day.
In the following essay, I will touch upon issues of sexual violence against women and their fear of crime. These are serious issues needing a solution. In the end, the essay asks whether it is possible to improve the situation and create a better public space in which women will not have to fear and limit themselves. I argue that attitude change and prevention are the first steps towards changing the unequal position of women in the patriarchal society.
Violence against women
Gender-based violence is a serious global public health problem that has been addressed many times in the course of the last few decades. This type of violence is based on gender inequality and the abuse of power in such relations – women and girls are particularly affected. European Commission statistics show that between 45 to 55 percent of women in the EU have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15 (European Commission, n.d.). World Health Organization data confirm that 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or sexual violence by a non-partner (World Health Organization, 2021). Such numbers are alarming and show that our living space is safe only for some of us. Women face sexual harassment and sexual violence every day in every country in the world – but not only in their intimate partnerships.
Violence in public spaces differs from other kinds of violence such as intimate partner violence and domestic violence. All of them are serious issues in which the victims are predominantly women. And women in cities are also the main victims of violence in public spaces. “Urban women, the youngest women especially, are frequently exposed to violence in public spaces. This violence is most often of a sexual nature” (Lebugle, 2017, p. 4). In relation to that, women experience fear in their everyday activities and public life. They face violence of a sexual nature more often than men, and their fear is predominantly connected to the fear of rape.
Women’s fear of crime
Research on fear of crime is relatively consistent in its findings that women report higher levels of fear than men (Braungart et al., 1980; Hale, 1996; Lawton & Clark, 2015; Stanko, 1995). There are several explanations for this – women are more vulnerable, they are socialized into being fearful and they are often physically weaker than their male aggressors. One of the differences that makes women’s fear of crime specific is that such fear is connected to their fear of men and rape. This results from women being raised in a patriarchal society and it reflects their position in a gendered world. As Stanko (1995) states in her paper, “the reality of sexual violence (…) is a core component of being female and is experienced through a wide range of everyday mundane situations” (p. 50). Being female means fear of rape.
Women who experience fear often have to master various safety precautions to get around the city. After the rape and murder of Everard, many women have shared the strategies and routines they use when walking home alone. Under the hashtags #TextMeWhenYouGetHome and #SheWasWalkingHome on social media, they shared about going home early, choosing appropriate clothing, walking longer routes that are considered safer, pretending to make a phone call, etc. The phrase “text me when you get home” is also one of the ways women are used to taking care of each other after they part ways. But even though Everard went home early, walked on a well-lit street and was chatting with her boyfriend all the way home, she was raped and murdered by a male police officer.
In these ways, women restrict themselves from certain places and certain activities, which limits participating fully in public life. When walking home, women must be cautious and alert all the time.
Who will protect us?
Some crime prevention campaigns, police and government programs, and even some individuals, place the responsibility on women. Women are socialized into thinking that certain times of the day, certain places and certain kinds of clothing are not appropriate for them. They are advised to arm themselves, to take self-defense courses, to limit themselves and choose different paths. It is crucial to change this discourse and place the responsibility on those accountable – that is, men and the patriarchal society that allows men to harass women.
Since “these fears often translate into concerns about the physical environment” (Stanko, 1995, p. 50), there have been several attempts to improve women’s experience of public space through urban design. This includes the improvement of street lighting, the maintenance of public spaces and greenery, implementing CCTV in the streets or higher police surveillance. Gender mainstreaming is definitely a good thing but such measures are not enough to erase gender inequalities in a space designed by men for men. As Leslie Kern, the author of the book Feminist City, says: “We may not know exactly what a safe city looks like, but we know that it won’t involve private safety measures. It won’t rely on the police to prevent or adequately investigate crimes (…) and it won’t expect physical changes to undo patriarchal dominance” (Kern, 2021).
The World Health Organization has published a document entitled “Respect Women” (2019), which guides policymakers in how to prevent violence against women. Each letter of the word “respect” stands for a strategy to implement. These include: relationships skills strengthening, empowerment of women, service ensuring, poverty reduction, environments made safe, child and adolescent abuse prevention, transformation of attitudes, beliefs, and norms. Such guidelines should be inculcated into our society, among the youth and adults alike.
Violence against women is a serious global issue that needs to be addressed and solved. The numbers of women experiencing sexual harassment and violence in public spaces are alarming. Women’s fear of crime is different from and greater than that of men because it is often linked to their fear of rape and vulnerability to violence perpetrated by men. As a result, women must limit themselves from certain places and activities in order to avoid danger. Smoothing the edges through urban design is not enough to erode the patriarchal structures rooted in our society. It is important that we make safer and gender inclusive cities but that will not occur without prevention and attitude change first – we need to strengthen relationship skills, implement abuse prevention, transform norms, and empower women.
Barbora Jelínková is a Master’s degree student of Sociology
This post was written in conjunction with the master’s sociology course “Writing Sociology,” at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University, taught by B. Nadya Jaworsky.
Braungart, M., Braungart, R., & Hoyer, W. (1980). Age, Sex, and Social Factors in Fear of Crime. Sociological Focus, 13(1), 55-66. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20831143
European Commission. (n.d.). What is gender-based violence?. European Commission website. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/gender-equality/gender-based-violence/what-gender-based-violence_en
Hale, C. (1996). Fear of Crime: A Review of the Literature. International Review of Victimology, 4(2), 79–150. https://doi.org/10.1177/026975809600400201
Kern, L. (2021, March 15). Women, Fear, and Cities. Verso Books blog. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5024-women-fear-and-cities
Lawton, M., & Clark, R. (2015). The Fear Of Crime In The United States: A Tale Of Two Genders. International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 41(2), 117-129. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44507292
Lebugle, A. & the VIRAGE survey team. (2017). Young women in large cities are the main victims of violence in public space. Population & Societies, 11(11), 1-4. https://doi.org/10.3917/popsoc.550.0001
Stanko, E. (1995). Women, Crime, and Fear. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 539, 46-58. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1048395
World Health Organization. (2019). Respect Women: preventing violence against women. World Health Organization. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/312261
World Health Organization. (2021, March 9). Violence against women. WHO website. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women