On the 25th November 2021, our amazing group of panellists joined together to discuss the pressing issue of women’s safety. This year was the 30th anniversary of the global campaign raising awareness of violence against women, and yet rates of femicide remain roughly the same today as it did thirty years ago: one woman is murdered every three days in the UK. Further, in light of recent acts of sexual terrorism and violence, including the assaults and murders of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, and many others, now is the time to speak up.
Our panel included:
Heather Offord, Director of One4Growth
Ashley Scotland, Director of Thriving Survivors
Laura Maginess, Director of Glasglow Girls Club
Tracy Scott, President of Glasglow Girls Club
Alice Jackson, Co-founder of Strutsafe
Elena Soper, of YWCA Scotland
Emma Miller, Director of Hood Magazine
Hayley Millar, of Richland Minibuses
Georgia & Lauryn, two students attending Glasgow Caledonian University
Key motivation: Protecting the next generation of women
Heather began by expressing her frustrations and sense of loss, wanting to figure out the best way forward for the next generation of women: ‘Honestly I am angry. I’m fed up of having the same conversation and at a bit of a loss as to where we go, what I tell my daughter as she gets closer and closer to high school.’
Laura agreed: ‘I’m knackered by what women have been through, by what I’ve normalised in my own life, and as Ashley said as well, I’ve got a two-year-old girl and I’m terrified about what the future holds if we don’t stand strong now.’
Emma, with two daughters of her own, felt the same: ‘It’s utterly ridiculous to think my 16- and 17-year-old girls can’t walk home from school in the dark. Someone has to go to the bus stop to collect them because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Ashley, who also has children, felt it was important to speak up for the women and girls of the future: ‘If we act now, we can prevent some of this for the next generation.’
Key topic: Women’s safety apps
The panel responded ambivalently to the now wider range of safety apps accessible to women, noting their usefulness but also their inadequacy at targeting our culture of victim-blaming or the ideology behind male violence.
Alice is the co-founder of the service Strutsafe, a phoneline available to women walking home in the UK and which provides volunteers (in Edinburgh only) to walk women home. She explained how the service came to be, having attended a vigil for Sarah Everard: ‘There was an atmosphere of not only grief and mourning and loss, but there was a real tangible frustration and anger that we had lost another sister just because she couldn’t do something so simple as walk home without risk of violence.’ Her co-founder Rachel stood up to speak, and offered her number to any women needing company walking home; hence Strutsafe was formed. Another panellist, Lauryn, mentioned that one of her friends benefitted from the helpline one night while she was walking home, helping her feel safe.
Alice accepts, however, the criticism that it’s a ‘plaster solution’ over a wound. She explained ‘If we think about violence against women and violence against marginalised groups it goes way further than this. It’s so ingrained in our culture, it’s so prevalent: the misogyny, it’s unfathomable.’ ‘But’, she continued, ‘moving forward, we very much want to be part of reform.’ Strutsafe has been active in meeting politicians, contributing to Everard inquiry, and taking opportunities for activism as they come.
Alice also noted that some apps are not committed to this reform, and instead remain complicit in a victim-blaming culture: ‘I think something we have to completely de-programme within ourselves is any kind of responsibility. And I know that we’re encouraged to [take responsibility] by society, and we’re actually encouraged to by a number of the companies that pitch us these apps and these numbers and these services. Because there is so much blame that can fall on you when these things happen […] but at the end of the day, no woman is responsible for anything that happens against her. […] There’s so much strength in just existing anyway, and walking in the world we walk in.’
Lauryn noted that she relied on apps to help herself and her friends reassured each other that they were safe after a night out: ‘Georgia and I go out quite a lot in Glasgow together and we always either share an Uber or we track each other’s Ubers. We always make sure that as soon as we’re home we message each other and stuff like that because it is worrying if your friend leaves and you don’t hear from them, your brain just starts to wonder.’
Emma expressed her concern that an overreliance on technology might dampen women’s awareness of their surroundings: ‘I don’t want women to lose their innate ability to look after themselves, feeling that something or someone else is going to be able to do it for them.’
Heather, however, relayed a story of how she was pursued fifteen years ago walking along Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to her brother’s flat, before she had access to a mobile phone. She explained that she needed to stop in a phone booth to call her brother to come and meet her at his gate, but that by that point her pursuer had had time to catch up. With this story in mind, Heather explained: ‘Now, with a ten-year-old daughter, I want her to have all the apps.’ She felt that at least now these apps provide time and a safety net to women and girls who are in a potentially dangerous situation.
Key topic: Systematic failures to protect women / victim-blaming
The panel had many stories to relay, from themselves and others, of how women had been failed by the police, the justice system, and others who fail to take women’s safety seriously.
Elena noted that the expectation that women be strong and hyperaware if their surroundings is simply not enough to ensure their safety: ‘Yes, we do need to be strong but we also need to have support systems in place, and not just support systems within our community, but also support systems that we know that if we were to report things that they would be taken seriously by the powers that be that have the power to make change in this. That’s companies that run services, that’s the justice system, that’s politicians and policy. We need to have those things fixed.’
Elena agreed with others on the panel that faith in police is at an all-time low: ‘Previously people had an intrinsic trust of the police; I do not think that that exists at all anymore. We’re talking about this as a group of majority white women, but actually, if you’re from any other marginalised community, the trust there is even lower.’
Tracy spoke of the initiative to have police officers video call their station to proof their legitimacy as police officers: ‘If that happened to me, I would be more worried at someone trying to justify that they were a police person. […] I just thought, that’s not an answer to making people feel safer.’
Others explained that adequate training and cultural changes within the police force are needed, especially concerning recent reports of spiking by injection happening to young women in nightclubs.
Emma noted: ‘This should have been stamped out from the start. Zero tolerance on this; we cannot be allowing people to do this to young women who are out and about trying to have a good time after the last two years that we’ve had. Absolutely not. Where’s the big statements?’
Alice added: ‘Police Scotland’s response to all of this… It’s so many things: it’s denying the spiking existed, it’s denying the numbers are what they are.’
Georgia commented too: ‘It’s just unfathomable, the thought you have to consider what kind of top you’re wearing if it’s lowcut at the back, if the material is thick enough, if that were to happen what you would do. It’s so new. There’s no education around it.’
Alice noted on the topic of spiking that: ‘Misogyny adapts, it survives, it mutates. And when we find solutions, covering our drinks, never leaving our drinks alone, staying with our friendship groups, it will just adapt.’ She was also concerned that the spiking was a concerted effort on behalf of perpetrators organising online: ‘I was worried that maybe Reddit or 4chan, which are these online forums where [there’s] misogyny and men are encouraged to commit these acts of violence, I had a feeling something had come out and gone out on one of these platforms saying: “you could inject women with needles, with spiking agent.”’ Failure to grapple with new forms of misogynistic violence means that systematic failures to protect women will have more and more severe consequences.
Ashley relayed her perspective as someone who helps survivors of sexual abuse: ‘You hear it so often. Whilst there is police out there trying to do good and change, there’s a systematic failure within Police Scotland and within metropolitan police as well. That does need to change. I hear it day after day after day, of women coming in and telling us that they’ve been stripped searched and put into a polythene suit. And this is survivors of really, really serious historical abuse. That whole situation has just amplified her trauma tenfold.’
Ashley continued: ‘It’s great when they pay lip service and they say, “we’re listening, we’re listening.” Well let’s see you actually put that into action. […] We need to know that you’ve heard.’
Alice pointed out that cultural changes have been inhibited by police not taking sexual violence seriously when it is perpetrated by officers themselves. She cited that: ‘Since 2018, eight hundred police officers across the UK have been found guilty by a panel of sexual misconduct, and have not been dismissed.’
Overall, there was an overwhelming feeling that women’s concerns are just not listened to because of institutional and cultural sexism. Emma argued: ‘If there was any other sector of society, one member of that society was getting murdered or killed every three days, that would be classed as a state of national emergency.’
Georgia, speaking of spiking, similarly noted: ‘I know that if it was against male politicians it would be considered a terror attack, but because it’s against female students it’s completely dismissed.’
Key topic: Men
On the back of talking about these systematic failures, Ashley noted: ‘There needs to be a whole new focus on the conversation and putting the blame back very, very firmly where it belongs as well as the responsibility and accountability for behaving like that.’
Ashley continued: ‘Men need to be a part of this conversation. We need to change the cultural attitudes that are entrenched within our communities. […] The generational norms that get passed down from grandfather to father to son; that becomes a circle, that needs to be broken. That comes back to the education we give our girls and our boys.’
Heather agreed that these attitudes start young: ‘Particularly the programme I watched last night about rape culture in schools was horrendous: 10-, 11-year-old boys watching porn and that’s their expectation and the violence that’s in that as well.’ She and others felt that PornHub’s response in insisting parents use child-lock features were inadequate, and failed to explain why mainstream porn so often depicts degradation and violence against women.
Heather felt that there were great solutions happening, but that they’re yet to reach their key audience of men: ‘That Guy campaign I thought was great. It’s focused at men. Maybe I’ve missed something, but it’s the first men one that I’ve seen that’s about guys and getting guys involved. I thought it was fantastic. However, I talked to lots of guys and they hadn’t heard of it. I talked to lots of women; they’d heard about it.’
Key topic: safety & transport
Elena quoted a report conducted by YWCA Scotland that found that: ‘67% of the respondents felt unsafe and uncomfortable on buses around Glasgow. 95% of respondents said that they did not feel safe in parks after dark. […] 81% wanted better lights in Glasgow’s parks.’ She supported solutions such as the Clyde Light the Way campaign to help address these concerns.
Hayley of Richland Minibuses offered her advice: ‘It’s really about making people aware where you’re going, making sure that the vehicle you’re getting into is properly licensed. […] Ask the driver to take a picture of the license; a lot of genuine drivers wouldn’t bother if you asked to take a picture of their license, they’re quite comfortable at doing that.’
Hayley also suggested to: ‘Try and use more local, independent companies rather the big companies, because they’re the ones that are too commercialised. They’re just money-orientated; they want to take people’s money, people’s booking and then not turning up, and that’s what leaves people in a vulnerable situation.’
Key topic: solidarity
Ashley hoped that these conversations inspired solidarity not just amongst women now but for the next generation: ‘We are not second-class citizens. I will not raise my daughter to feel inferior to a man.’
Alice’s final words summarised the panel’s feelings: ‘Stay unapologetic. Stay angry. Strutsafe is here for you if you need. […] And to those who suffer violence and to the women who suffer violence, it is never your fault, we are here for you, all of us are; there is a whole community of people out there, people like the work that Ashley is doing. And to the people who perpetrate this violence: your time is limited. We’re all coming for you and you won’t get away with this much longer. Things will change because we will make them change. You won’t be able to get away with this forever, because we’ve always had enough, but now we have the tools, the resources, the empowerment, and the community and the solidarity to take collective action to end it. And we will. We will win, and you will lose.’
Our panel touched on so many issues that women face and felt angry and frustrated that very little seems to have changed in the last few decades, especially institutional failures by police and the justice system to take women’s claims seriously. In the face of new forms of misogynistic violence, including spiking by injection, these failures are being felt even more acutely. However, what our panel found overall was that there was solace in the growing solidarity and commitments to collective action taking place to ensure women’s safety, happiness, and freedoms.
Be on the lookout for more panel discussions about what we can do to stay safe, stamp out gendered violence, and how to be an ally to women in these dangerous and turbulent times.