According to UN Women, women and girls of all ages are exposed to the threat of rape, sexual assault, or abuse universally, whether in wartime or peacetime. The exact number of rape and sexual offences remain unclear due to the impunity surrounding perpetrators’ prosecutions, a situation worsened by some courts putting the blame on the victim. Survivors are reluctant to come forward. And abuse and violence against women remains a neglected issue amongst the public.
In recent years, through campaigns such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NotOneMore, people have rallied globally to say that it is time to face up to the issue of sexual violence. It is no longer acceptable to shy away from confronting the perpetual abuse that women have to suffer while going about their daily lives. To support the UN annual campaign of ending violence against women and in the hope of raising awareness, Sheffield Students’ Union has organised several events in the upcoming two weeks as part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.
On 23 November, women of all ages gathered in the streets of Sheffield, reclaiming their right to walk in the night as untroubled as anyone should be. For Sheffield, Reclaim the Night holds a particular historical significance due to Peter Sutcliffe, a man better known to the public as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. From 1975 to 1980 he murdered thirteen women and attempted to kill another seven around the north of England. The result of this horrendous incident was a curfew preventing women from walking outside past nightfall. However, the order, while much needed back then, has remained an unspoken rule for many women to this day.
During the march, Rosa Tully, SU Women’s Officer, highlighted the importance of women coming together to raise awareness in hope of bringing about real change.
“Women still remain victims of gendered violence and they still are not listened to, even when it comes to court cases,” she said.
“So this is a very important night for women to come together to say that we’ve had enough of it and we are here to resist the kind of oppressive system and experiences.”
Rosa identifies the sad truth that while both men and women rally for every other issue, when it comes to the well-earned rights of women, women often have to march alone, shouting in the hope that men in power will hear them.
Nahyun Kim, a 19-year-old European and international law student at the University, notes that gender inequality is not a historical problem nor a past event, it is still happening now. It is our reality.
“If women do not stand out and speak up, there would be no one to protect our rights. It is important for us to let people know this is a real problem and try to solve it.”
There is a misconception that, when referring to violence against women, it encaptures physical and sexual abuse. However, women are not afraid to walk down the streets only when the sun falls. Speaking with Tara Kimberlee, Vice President of the Feminist Society at the SU, she told me that she tends to be wary when walking past pubs filled with men that start drinking at 12.00pm. The abuse does not come during a specific time of day; women at night are living in fear of dark-lit alleyways and empty streets and during the day, they are subjected to catcalling and sexist slurs.
“What do we define as verbal abuse? How can we treat people better, more fairly? It’s an opportunity [for us to think].” said Thea Padley, a 22-year-old computer science student at Sheffield Hallam University, asking us to contemplate whether we are aware of the broad context of ‘verbal abuse’.
Many think that it only entails straightforward insults but in reality, snide remarks, uncalled for criticizing of appearance, becoming a frequent target of yelling, a disagreement that develops into a string of accusations and ‘guilt-tripping’ are some of the many behaviours listed under ‘verbal abuse’ by Healthline. We should be taught from a young age on what falls under the title of abuse so we know to report it when it happens to us or someone we know. Yet, we should now support schemes which educate to prevent such behaviours. The World Health Organization (WHO) fund a number of school and community programmes to educate and prevent abusive behaviours, moving the responsibility away from the victims, to the perpetrators.
Although successful, these schemes are still in their early stages. According to UN Women, at least 70 per cent of women in the UK have experienced ‘sexual and/or physical violence’ by a partner during their lifetime. WHO also pointed out that up to 70 per cent of women experience physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Being an issue across many societies, rates of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner ranged from 15 per cent in Japan, to 70 per cent in Ethiopia and Peru, according to the WHO study.
The impact of gendered violence is profound: women are deterred from viewing relationships in the same way, live their life under insecurity and flinching in the prospect of physical contact, others might become prone to a range of mental health disorders, and some are led into the path of offending. In fact, over 50 per cent of women currently in prison were victims of some kind of abuse from an ex-partner.
Megan Binning, a 20-year-old politics student participating in the march, considers conversation the best way to pave the path towards a concrete solution:
“Silence just kills any progress of change whatsoever. And even if the conversation is just an incremental one, it’s going to make a lot of difference for someone. Don’t change the world; change someone’s world for the better.”
But while these women were marching the streets, devoting themselves to trying to make that conversation happen, there are still lots of issues left unheard and many female voices not being taken seriously. During Reclaim the Night, some men swore and yelled at the crowd, made offensive gestures and teased the marchers. Ironically, the circumstances were better this year than the last one during which some women felt fearful for their wellbeing. The difference was that, on this march, security presence was requested; in any other kind of march guards are not usually needed.
As with many movements in recent years, more awareness has been raised and people in power have started acknowledging the need for women to feel safe. But it is a process moving at a slow pace, and many are still neglecting the issue. This shows the need of constant conversation to enable people to understand the impact of gendered violence. It is also giving us as a society an opportunity to reflect: what else can we and those in power do to make this matter more recognisable to all and to effectively reduce it?