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Prioritising Women’s Safety at Night

Kaitlin Dryburgh- December 9th 2022

To feel safe in your surroundings and where you live shouldn’t be a luxury but a right. It’s a need that everyone should be entitled to. Yet in Scotland, a developed country, we still haven’t created an environment where women feel safe at night and are physically safe at night. I want to note the difference, as most of the time a women walking alone at night in whatever situation will get home with nothing having happened, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t take her headphones out, have her keys in between her knuckles or phone someone just to feel safer, more alert, and in control of her situation.

I read a story this week of a women who tried to get on a bus after a night out in Edinburgh. This was at 4am and as we all know night buses don’t come around regularly. Unfortunately when she went to tap her card to pay it was declined, she tried several times and then tried to buy a ticket via the ticketing app, but no luck. The bus driver promptly told her to get off and threatened her with the police, regardless of the fact she was pleading with him to let her stay on. So with no help from the driver or any member of the public, the young woman had to walk home alone at 4am. As she said she was scared, a little shaken up from the bus driver experience and on her way home was stopped by three separate groups of men. It’s not a great situation for any person to be in, never mind a young woman. Of course the bus driver can’t be letting anyone on for free as they wish, but there are procedures set up for situations like this and it doesn’t seem as if these were followed in this instance. Where was the duty of care in this instance, if something bad had happened on her walk home perhaps the response from Lothian buses would have been different?

This is not uncommon and up and down Scotland and the rest of the UK women have to depend on transport to ensure they get home safely, as unfortunately we have failed at creating an environment where it is deemed completely safe to walk home alone at night. I would say the majority of women all have a story of street harassment, that’s not to say that young men also don’t face harassment and violence at night. We’ve seen some of the most extreme cases of what harassment and violence against women can look like when they are simply walking home alone at night.

Most recently this took place in Aberdeen when Jill Barclay was walking to her home in Dyce having enjoyed a night out at a concert with friends when she was murdered by a random man, and then set on fire. I think it’s shocking the lack of coverage this got, I’m really not sure people in the central belt, never mind in places like London know her name or what happened. At least the city of Aberdeen and the community of Dyce has rallied around her family and there have been marches organised by the likes of Reclaim the night to bring awareness to the issues facing women at night and the dangers they can face.

Of course one of the most notorious cases came during the Covid-19 pandemic when Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a serving Met police officer. These are the very worst of cases but are the effects of something that is constantly bubbling under the surface, it was reported at the start of this year over 500 women in Glasgow alone had reported some form of street harassment or sexual abuse, when asked by UN Women UK 97% of women stated that they had experienced some form of sexual abuse, in another study conducted by ONS found that last year 34% of women who had been a victim of crime in the last 12 months had experienced street harassment. It’s rife, and I don’t believe this utterly shambolic situation is getting the attention it deserves from politicians, Police Scotland or local councillors.

It is hard to trust that when decisions are made around towns and cities that the safety of women is considered. For example, in Glasgow at COP26 last year the diversions put in place for residents meant that many women were forced to walk across a pitch-black park to get home from work or had to walk an extremely long way home. In Edinburgh the tram works closed a section of the pavement, and the diversion was through a graveyard, lit only by fairy lights – having walked this route at night it was extremely unnerving and did not feel safe at all. When these decisions are made, does anyone put themselves in shoes of a women alone at night? I highly doubt it.

Walking home is one thing but another issue facing women and a number of men is spiking. The new “trend” of spiking via injection hit the headlines last year and was all over social media at the time. As many people, mostly young women have reported being injected with some unknown substance. Making them feel a way that is not inline with the amount they have drank, in fact some claim that they hadn’t even finished their first drink. Spiking isn’t new and I’m sure most of us may know someone it’s happened to or maybe it’s even happened to you. Quite often especially women are warned never to accept a drink from a stranger, not to leave your drink out of sight or even buy one of those silicone caps for your glass (not sure about you but I would pay good money to see a few of my friends try and apply one of those being a few drinks in). These products along with others could be useful, shouldn’t at all be necessary and it’s sad that this is what it’s come to, yet now that advice is useless at the prospect of someone injecting you.

Recently a friend of mine experienced just this. She was out with her cousin and colleagues, enjoying a few drinks at a bar, when quite quickly she became very unwell. She stumbled her way to the toilets with the help of her cousin but the fact that she couldn’t keep her head up alerted the bouncers, and they threw her out. By this time she had lost consciousness as she lay on the kerb outside of the bar in the freezing cold. The bouncers decided she was just drunk so didn’t offer to help at all, not even providing a chair. The people she was with were frantically trying to help her as she came in and out of consciousness, thankfully a volunteer from a street organisation stepped in and helped them call an ambulance and provide a foil blanket. At the hospital it was confirmed she had been spiked. The speculation that it was done via injection was because they had all been sat at a table where their drinks were not left unattended, and she had a tiny puncture mark on her arm surrounded by a small bruise the next day. She was asked if she wanted to report it to the police but having had such a bad experience at the bar, the overwhelming feeling of worry and anxiety having not remembered the last several hours and still freezing cold, she just wanted to go home. It took her several days to recover, yet the feeling of being violated that a completely unknown substance was in her body, injected via an unknown needle is still with her.

In January this year Police Scotland stated that there is absolutely no forensic evidence to support widespread claims that women are being spiked via injection. Det Ch Supt Laura McLuckie stated that “There is clearly alcohol involved. There is clearly recreational drug use involved. However, no identified cases of any spiking by injecting in Scotland”. This is in the face of so many people stating this happened to them and even a campaign organised by students last year to boycott nightclubs until this is sorted. I know the phenomena of social media can cause stirs around issues that don’t exist, but I don’t believe this to be the case. The fact that Police Scotland found no evidence is absolutely not surprising, actually it would have been surprising if they had. The reason being is detailed in the example of my friend when she was spiked, for most people who detail their experience of being spiked they are completely dismissed and judged as being too drunk or high on drugs. They are often kicked to the curb, literally, and scoffed at when people try and help them. There are even accounts of women being thrown out of clubs alone and unconscious, no one trying to locate a friend. Any complaint made to the establishment they were just in is highly likely to go ignored, as the stigma surrounding a person who was drinking is too prevalent to possibly believe them or the people they are with.

Where there is smoke there is fire, and there is enough smoke in this case that Police Scotland should take a look at the context of this situation. People who have been spiked are vulnerable and if they are not taken seriously in the first instance, why do they think they would be willing to go to the Police the next day? People are sometimes made to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and quite often this is affecting younger more inexperience people. There are no procedures for a suspected spiking, there is no protocol to involve the police in the first instance, in fact there isn’t even any specific law naming spiking as criminal offence. If you do have the courage to approach the Police, which is courageous considering their damaged reputation in the face of the murder of Sarah Everard and reports detailing the deep-rooted sexism, you may be taken seriously, you might not, and there are plenty of stories detailing the latter.

From what I can gather I do not see the acknowledgment that this is a serious issue that is ongoing and not just applicable to the summer of 2021. This shouldn’t be accepted as a normal occurrence on a night out, subsequently the police may need to deploy different tactics to get to the bottom of it. Are nightclubs and bars to go unchecked outside of regular policing, operating on their own rules. It’s just another item added to the list putting women in a more dangerous position at night. After leaving university the appeal of a nightclub took a nosedive, however I can still remember the thought that went into getting home, the concern that you had to have for your female friends to make sure they got home safe and the last thing you always said to them before they hopped in a taxi, “message me when you’re home”, I don’t think I ever heard my male friends say that to one another.

We need to see a systematic change, from new legislation, new procedures, and health and safety laws that establishments with late licences need to adhere to, such as training for staff. As well as a societal shift that allows for women to report crimes even if they weren’t sober at the time and (most importantly) be listened to. Councils should be asking themselves at every turn are we providing well lit, safe walking paths for everyone? Even if a bus service is about to be disbanded are councils asking themselves, will this allow people to get home after a late shift at work or a night out? The trickier part of this is how to put a stop to violence against women, that isn’t going to happen overnight, as laws aren’t a magic fix. However, starting at school age is a good place to start anti-violence strategies as well as how to respect others can genuinely make a difference, showing what a healthy relationship looks like, developing life skills and improving knowledge of abuse. There are countless ways we could help women in the long-term, there is so much research that could be implemented, so that when people talk about Sarah Everard and say “never again” that’s actually true.

4 thoughts on “Prioritising Women’s Safety at Night”

  1. Gordon Andrew West

    While I have a lot of sympathy with most of the issues raised in this article, I think it misses the bigger issue of which violence against women is a part: a minority of men who regularly exhibit violent and criminal behaviour against others.

    I say that because the statistics show that young men are more likely to be assaulted, robbed, or murdered than young women – be that late at night or generally – and therefore would suggest that the solution to the issue is not to focus on just female victims of such violence but address the needs of all victims by turning our attention to the group responsible for the problem: the minority of men who commit these crimes. Sadly, current interventions by social services where young boys (mainly) are violent towards others are completely inadequate and therefore usually ineffective in transforming lives. Education can play a role but, in itself, will have limited impact on outcomes when the young people continue to live and socialise in circumstances where violence and abuse are commonplace.

    So, as to the point about ensuring that young women can get home safely at night…fully agree, but let’s ensure we extend this to men as well since they are, statistically, more likely to be victims.

    1. Shirley Wishart

      Why am I not surprised to see the first reply on a piece about women’s safety is to mention men as victims and how the answer to womens safety issues us to make everyone safe? The truth is these crimes against women are not just committed by men who “regularly exhibit violent and criminal behaviour against others.” The opposite tends to be true. You’re promulgating the myth of “only dangerous men.” Assaults on women are often opportunistic which would belie the argument that there are only dangerous men roaming the streets looking for women. Assaults on women are often sexual in nature, not usually in the case of assaults between men. Men tend to be better able to defend themselves too. So, while you talk statistics it is the reasons for the assaults that are key and the unsafe environments in our communities that we should be addressing. It would be helpful if you were actually to address the content of the piece and suggest some ideas for improving womens safety rather than falling back on whataboutery, no matter how factual statistically. Women’s experience is different from men’s. Let’s address it.

  2. Gordon Andrew West

    Hi Shirley, I have a son and a daughter in their 20’s and want both to be safe at night. The fact that woman are more likely to be sexually assaulted while men are more likely to be beaten up, robbed, stabbed, shot or murdered, does not automatically mean that the solutions need to be considered for men and women separately: both need to be able to walk home safely at night or to have safe and reliable public transport and it surely makes sense to consider the needs of both sexes together in this regard.

    Where I may disagree with you – and where I disagreed with the title of the original article (Prioritising Women’s Safety at Night) – is that I do not agree that the needs of women to be safe should be a greater priority than the needs of men to be safe, especially when the evidence is that men are more likely to be victims than women. Why can we not agree that Prioritising Safety at night (for everyone) should be the priority?

  3. Important for all with one important difference. Almost all women fear travelling, walking in the dark. Few men share that fear. It disadvantages, damages life quality.
    A lot could be done. Ensure licensed premises have a duty not to sell to someone intoxicated. So they have a duty of care to all users. This has failed if anyone leaves overly drunk, semi conscious or at risk. Enforce the duty of care. Spend resources to protect. Campaign that such behaviour is socially unacceptable and sanction accordingly: as we have largely with drink driving, smoking. Where an offence is committed recognise the signficant broader social cost and deal strongly: fine, community service, tag, constrain orders, prohibition of activities. Campaign effectively for social groups to care for each other, have one not drinking, one a driver, never leave anyone alone etc.. Offer a “get you home” service to be paid for after the event if necessary. Address the shortage of taxis post covid, the market is being to slow to respond. Just a few ideas. Others will have more. Overall put resources, time and commitment into addressing a significant social issue.

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