From taking a longer route home, leaving before it gets dark or paying for a private taxi to your front door, women all over the world take a range of necessary precautions to keep themselves safe in the city they live in. This loss of time, energy and resources is known as the Women’s Safety Tax, which is the topic of our upcoming online event on 26 April 2022.
Ahead of the event, our colleagues discussed their experiences of the Women’s Safety Tax, the importance of this discussion, and how communities can shoulder the burden and responsibility of women’s safety rather than leaving it up to individuals.
Why do you think this discussion is so important and what do you hope to highlight about women’s safety in London?
Sana Ikram, Senior Events Officer and project lead for this event: I don’t think society realises how prevalent and immediate our thoughts are as women regarding our personal safety. Women are highly sensitive to signs of danger or malicious intent from others and we are disproportionately affected in regards to our mental and emotional health suffering as a result of this constant vigilance. Our constant awareness of our own safety is a reality that everyone plays a role in, especially in a city like London. How does a city that runs 24/7 with constant surveillance still let criminals get away with such heinous acts towards women? We need to hear more stories. We need to raise more red flags. We need to serve more justice.
Bob Clayton, External Affairs Manager (Events): While we may never get to a position where women’s safety can be 100% guaranteed, it’s crucial that the message around women’s safety is constantly promoted. There are so many factors which go into the topic that must be considered and tackled to begin improving women’s safety in London; male allies, a healthy culture within the Met Police, improved public transport, well-lit streets and so much more. We need all stakeholders working together as one, which is why it’s so important to have an event on women’s safety right now.
What are your own experiences of the women’s safety tax?
Sarah Daniels, External Affairs Manager (Communications): I started being impacted by the women’s safety tax when I was still a child. I grew up in quite a rural town. When I was 10 and I started walking to and from school by myself, I had to walk around the roads in the winter rather than cutting across the fields to school in the dark. The extra 10-15 minutes added to my journey was made even more annoying by the fact that when my younger brother started walking to school, he didn’t have to take the same precautions.
Nick Bowes, Chief Executive: I’m very alert to two things when entering discussions about people’s safety on the streets of London – one, I’m a man and two, I’m 6’4. I can’t remember an occasion when I have felt unsafe or threatened, be that walking around London in the day time or at night, or travelling on public transport at any time of the day. I don’t have to walk with a key in my hand in case I need a weapon, avoid sitting in a near-empty tube carriage or telephone to let friends and family know when I am home.
But I’m lucky, and in many ways an exception to the daily experiences other Londoners face. However, I do know that the combination of these two things – being a man, and a tall one at that – is potentially intimidating to others, particularly women and girls. I am very mindful about walking at night, and will cross the road to avoid being behind or needing to overtake a women. I often jog at night, and go out of my way to avoid running behind or near a woman walking. I shouldn’t have to alter my behaviour like this to ensure women feel safe – we ought to live in a world where everyone feels safe at any time of the day, wherever they are – but the reality unfortunately is that this isn’t the case, so I do what I can to help.
Klara Blazek, Senior Designer: Getting home by yourself late at night is quite fear inducing. I find it particularly unnerving if I am in an area I am less familiar with and my journey requires a long walk or a long wait at a bus station. To avoid this, I will opt to take a longer route home or on occasion take an Uber, which is incredibly expensive and not a viable option for many Londoners. In addition to the time and financial burden, it is also a mental burden to make those risk calculations every time—weighing cost against my safety and hoping the whole way home that I made the correct decision.
Ines Oliveira, Events Officer: From a young age (about 10 years old) I started taking longer routes to walk home, and even taking the bus after school instead of walking, because I got followed by a man after dark. This meant I took an extra 20 minutes, in comparison to my male friends, to get home. Now in my 20s, if I’m having a late dinner with friends or family, I pay for a taxi to take me home because the nearest bus stops or tube stations are too far away from my home for me to walk from safely at night.
Aiste Kontrimaite, Events Officer: Considering my own safety and what would I do in certain situations has been a part of my life for a very long time, especially in the dark. As a runner, I always consider what I should and shouldn’t do in order to keep myself safe and protected from potential threats during the exercise, including running on a well-lit route after dark even when I’d prefer a park run, making sure that I have a key in an easily accessible place in case of a threat, and ditching the music so I can hear what’s happening around me.
Considering all the possible dangerous scenarios in any given situation is an essential part of most women and girls’ daily lives. It is not only time consuming, but also takes away the opportunity to enjoy life without fear.
For the first time, the ONS has asked people about feelings of personal safety. Have you noticed you are having more discussions around women’s safety this year with your friends and family?
Bob Clayton, External Affairs Manager (Events): I feel the issue has definitely become way more prevalent since the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. The media put a real focus on the issue which has then trickled down to personal conversations with friends and family. I do feel the issue can be forgotten and put on the back burner when an incident hasn’t been in the news for an extended period of time. Of course, this doesn’t mean incidents aren’t happening every day and it’s important that the city’s stakeholders don’t lose focus and forget that.
Ines Oliveira, Events Officer: Following last year’s murders – particularly Sarah Everard’s – women’s safety is a recurrent subject that’s discussed in my family and friends’ gatherings. As a young woman who often walks home alone, at night, I was very concerned about the possibility of the police being untrustworthy raised by the Sarah Everard case – if I can’t count on police officers to help me, then who else is left to aid me if I’m being followed or hassled on the street? I wasn’t the only one with this question; three of my female friends also expressed fear for their safety, saying that they have stopped going out with friends in the evening as they worry they will be harassed and don’t feel like they can trust anyone to help them return home safely.
How can women be supported by their communities and by men to make sure they feel safe in their city?
Aiste Kontrimaite, Events Officer: Local communities and men should not tolerate any signs of sexism and abuse against women. They should take action if they notice any suspicious behaviour by reporting it to the police and stepping up to stop any potential harm whenever possible.
Furthermore, I believe that a lot of women are scared or unsure about reporting unacceptable behaviour and are silently coping with it behind closed doors. We therefore need to ensure that local government and community groups explain clearly to women and girls what to do and who to contact in such cases.
Men have to be cautious of how a women might feel in certain situations (e.g. men walking behind women in the dark) and take responsibility for their actions and behaviour even if they don’t have bad intentions.
Bob Clayton, External Affairs Manager (Events): The issue of male allies and the changing mentality and behaviour of men lies at the top of the list of importance in tackling this issue. Unsavoury behaviour by men (no matter how egregious) needs to be called out by male friends, family and strangers when it arises. I think communities have a key role in lobbying the relevant stakeholders to ensure their area can be as safe as possible for women. Whether it’s improving street lighting in certain areas or police patrolling problem areas, communities need to ensure they can highlight ways to improve their local area for women.
Jasmine Brar, Senior Development Officer: If communities can help educate their citizens about the different forms of violence and abuse, from harassment to rape, and what we can do about them, we will all be able to better support the women and girls affected and come together to report the perpetrators. I thought the Mayor of London’s recent campaign ‘Violence against women begins with words’ is an excellent awareness-raising campaign that recognises that violence and its severity is often escalated over time, beginning with harmful attitudes towards women, which can then turn into physical violence. Unfortunately, as women, we are often told to alter our behaviour for our own safety, so this campaign makes me feel hopeful that public attitudes are changing and we all have a role to play in making our communities safer.
Another way communities can support women is through considering their needs in urban planning decisions. One relatively simple change we could implement is ensuring we advocate for sufficient lighting in public spaces. Not only would these planning considerations benefit everyone’s security, it would also improve accessibility for everyone.
Overall, we as the people who make up our communities need to come together, creating a united front, to put safety considerations for women and girls at the forefront of public debate; and back this up with local policies that support and protect us all.
Nick Bowes, Chief Executive: There are certainly fundamental societal changes which need making and, being frank, most of them fall to men. Sarah Everard’s tragic murder propelled to the top of the news agenda the issue of the safety of women and girls, and there were many discussions of the kinds of unacceptable behaviours women face on a daily basis. But these are not new – they weren’t suddenly experiences women and girls started facing only recently – they’ve been around for a very long time and it is the actions of men and boys that need changing if we are to really get to the heart. The only way to do this is to start early – young men and teenage boys need educating about healthy and respectful relationships, and about what is right and wrong – if we’re going to tackle this scourge.
Want to find out what our panel of experts thinks about the Women’s Safety Tax and how women can feel safe in the capital? Register now to join our online event Cutting the Women’s Safety Tax – we can’t wait to see you there!