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Reclaim the Night, Canberra

Philippa Moss

I’m sitting in a café at 9pm in central London as I write this piece, thinking about being a single woman, alone in a big city.

I’m so excited to be in this historically rich, fast-paced, intriguing city but I wonder am I free to walk the streets at night?

Are you free to walk in your street at night?

Having the freedom to walk down your street is a pretty essential human right. But if you are a woman and the sun has set, you might question your right to that particular freedom.

You may be a student making your way across campus, a woman meeting your friends for dinner on Friday night or, like me, a working mother enjoying an evening jog. Pretty ordinary pursuits, right? Well, the chances are that if you are doing these activities at night, your personal safety would be greater if you identified as a male.

Throughout the world, on the last Friday of October, people from all genders and all walks of life will gather in their towns and cities to Reclaim the Night.

The movement’s basic philosophy is to encourage the participation of local residents to publicly address the issue of public safety and how it impacts women’s choices at night. For many supporters, Reclaim the Night has also become a call to action for the prevention of gender-based violence.

How did we lose the night?  

Some believe Reclaim The Night started in the UK in 1977, when torchlit marches were held across England in Leeds, York, Manchester, Brighton and London. They were called by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, who were inspired by news of co-ordinated women-only ‘Take Back The Night’ marches against sexual harassment, held across towns and cities in West Germany.

This was particularly significant to women in England because of the serial murders by the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, who sexually attacked and murdered thirteen women across Yorkshire between 1975 and 1980.

The majority of these women were involved in the sex work industry. The community was angry that the police response to these murders seemed slow and that the press barely reported them. At the time the police response was to tell women not to go out at night, effectively putting them under curfew. This is not a helpful suggestion for any women particularly those working late shifts or night shifts who often have no choice about whether they go out at night.

In the United States in the mid-1970s an international movement, Take Back the Night, was established with the mission of ending violence toward women in all its forms. One of the very first march’s was held in the city of Philadelphia, which had been home to Dr Susan Speeth.

Employed by the University of Pennsylvania as a microbiologist, Susan was also a young mum and a gifted violinist. She was well known in her community as a volunteer worker with the poor and a civil rights activist. One October evening in 1975, she left her suburban home to enjoy a regular stroll around the neighbourhood. But she never returned home as she was stabbed by a stranger across the road from her house.

In Australia, we know the story only too well with the murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne. Jill Meagher was abducted on her way home one evening in September 2012, after what had been an ordinary night out with colleagues. Her life ended in extraordinary circumstances when the world lost another daughter, sister, wife and friend to violence in the night.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics produced the 2012 Personal Safety Survey. More than 17,000 people were asked about the violence they had experienced. Approximately 48 percent of the identifying females surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment, like inappropriate comments, threats and behaviours.

The Canberra Rape Crisis Centre responds to more than 1,300 crisis line calls each month and staff support an average of five victims each week at our hospitals and police stations.

Why are women vulnerable?

One persistent attitude in our community which contributes to violence against women is the belief that different genders have different rights when it comes to participating in activities outside the home, particularly at night. Another popular concept is that women are solely responsible for their public safety and should modify their behaviour and appearance to avoid the unwanted attention of strangers.

The message is also getting through to Australian girls and young women, as one study [1] revealed that 30 percent of young women agreed that “girls should not be out in public spaces after dark”. Women are encouraged to think the responsibility for violence and sexual harassment towards them is theirs and not the perpetrators of these crimes.

These widely held ideas dismiss the notion that public safety is the responsibility of an entire community, including local government, the business community, public transport operators, the education system, law enforcement, security personnel and the police.

Policy makers and the general public agree that the solution to this problem lies in increasing the safety of public spaces. Place making design, urban renewal, improved street lighting, CCTV cameras and the presence of police patrols. Changing social attitudes is also an important piece of the puzzle. We need increased education initiatives that highlight gender equality, we need to challenge gender stereotypes and promote respectful relationships.

There is also the underlying assumption that women who work in the sex industry have little to no rights. However, sex workers have the same right as any Australian to be safe and protected in their workplace. Unfortunately, they often find social stigma and discrimination a barrier to reporting violent crime and accessing the justice they are entitled to.

The recent case of six women who were raped and robbed by a gang of three men in Canberra highlighted the challenge that sex workers face in overcoming the stigma about the work they do. Canberra’s sex industry is generally considered a safe workplace by those employed within it, particularly for the close-knit nature of this community which encourages rapid information sharing on troublesome clients. However, the willingness of ACT police and detectives to investigate the perpetrators and ensure the privacy of the victims is a great step in ensuring sex workers receive appropriate support as victims of crime.

The impact of public awareness

The good news is that public awareness does lead to active change. One Canberra initiative which has attracted international attention is the Safety Mapping Survey Tool. Launched in August by the Women’s Centre for Health Matters, the interactive online map collects feedback from Canberra residents on where they do or don’t feel safe within the Territory.

In addition to providing a snapshot of safe and unsafe areas, the initiative has provided much-needed information on the positive impact that quality public space, services and facilities can have on public safety. I hope that this will, in turn, inform future policy, urban planning and place making.

Garema Place gathering  

Reclaim the Night continues to welcome supporters in Canberra from all cultures, ages, genders, communities and lifestyles. Each year, Canberrans turn out in force to support the movement with a walk of solidarity which begins in Garema Place. The night is celebrated with a range of public activities including a BBQ, live performances, speakers and a public march.

In Canberra the march will be held on Friday, 28 October from 6pm to 8pm at Garema Place. All Welcome.

[1] A Right to the Night: Australian girls on their safety in public space – Plan International Australia and Our Watch


Philippa Moss

Philippa Moss is a HIV activist, professional feminist and best known for her outspoken voice promoting healthy public policy and healthy urban development. Philippa has been a happy resident of Canberra for the past 17 years. Originally from Sydney, she came to Canberra at a pivotal stage in her life. She is a proud mother of two children, a son and daughter in their teens/twenties, who as a Queer parent has always felt a part of Canberra’s greater Lesbian, Gay and Queer community. She was recently appointed the Executive Director of the AIDS Action Council (ACT), after acting in the role for the past two years. In 2015 she was awarded the ACT Telstra Business Women’s Award for Purpose and Social Enterprise, along with the Australian Institute of Management’s Not for Profit Manager of the Year (ACT) award. More about the Author

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