CW: Sexual Assault, Rape, Gender Based Violence
We can't rewrite rape culture overnight, but there are practical steps that need to be taken.
It is exhausting seeing the same pink and white infographics recycled every time another woman loses her life just because another man felt entitled to her. After the harrowing murder of Sabina Nessa on 17 September, my feed is filled to the brim with safety tips, and helplines, and women sharing stories; as it was when Sarah Everard was murdered by Wayne Couzens earlier this year; as it is every time another woman’s story is shared in the news, posthumously or otherwise.
Once again, the responsibility falls to women to strategise and organise their way out of gender-based violence. As has been noted by countless people, in countless ways, the only genuine solution is an entire culture shift away from rape culture and toxic masculinity, a move away from the days of key-clutching and catcalling. Exhaustingly, these things will not change overnight. We have a long, tumultuous road ahead of us before we’ve even reached the point of scratching the surface. However, there are practical changes that can and should be made in Glasgow and on our campus to make women safer in public spaces.
As we have said time and time again this year, it should not be on a victim to prevent their own attack. Of course, for most women, hypervigilance remains the norm. We remind ourselves to wear “memorable” clothes. We press our keys between our fingers until they’re dented and bruising. We call up friends at 2 am in case we need evidence, and fake phone calls when there’s no one available, hoping to deter men from approaching us. When our local councils refuse to provide street lighting, outdated laws prevent us from a variety of self-defence methods, and it’s near impossible to get a taxi in the city centre, the onus remains ours alone to bear on that dreaded walk home.
Banned as a firearm under Section 5 (1)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968, carrying a little can of pepper spray in your purse has effectively the same penalty as carrying a gun in the UK. Indeed, all of the non-lethal weapons that a woman might wish to arm herself with for her walk home are illegal. Essentially, the only thing you can have on your person as a means of protection is a rape alarm. Otherwise, once again, you’re on your own. I remember my first rape alarm. Given to me as a stocking filler from my parents, it came in the shape of a little teddy bear with tiny shiny eyes. It was quite cute, if you ignored the shriek it could produce at the pull of a cord. Unapologetic, unsuspecting, and defenceless: the way many women are rendered by the inadequate laws and safeguards around our safety in the UK.
There is no conclusive evidence whatsoever that pepper spray causes any long-lasting damage, and yet it remains punishable by law. In response to a petition that called on the UK Government to make non-lethal self-defence weapons legal, a spokesperson responded that these sprays “are dangerous…and in the wrong hands can cause serious injury”. Forgive me if I’m being obtuse, but is it not better still to allow people to carry a non-lethal self-defence aid than fall victim to “serious injury” at the hands of men like Wayne Couzens and Koci Selamaj? It has to get better than this.
In Glasgow specifically, there has been a real issue around safeguarding people from attack in public spaces at night by ensuring that popular walking routes are well lit. You don’t have to cast your mind back very far to remember the consecutive attacks that happened in and around Kelvingrove in 2019, and yet it took almost two years and a number of petitions before anything was done to improve the safety of Kelvin Way. Excuses about protecting urban wildlife or lacking funding aren’t enough when our safety is at stake. Streets like Great George Street (behind the University library) amongst others in and around campus would benefit from adequate lighting, and it should not fall to students to petition for this.
In a survey of 126 students conducted by The Glasgow Guardian earlier this year, 91.3% of University of Glasgow students believe that the University could be doing more to tackle gender-based violence on our campus. Unsurprising when a quick search of “University of Glasgow” and “sexual assault” leads you to the recent BBC Scotland Disclosure coverage of the “mishandling” of specific cases on campus. When challenged by the BBC on these cases, a University spokesperson assured that “all allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment [are taken] extremely seriously”. When, two instances of sexual assault affected the Murano 12, after intruders broke into their flat, we saw students threatened with eviction, despite assurance from the University that student welfare was their priority. These assurances feel empty when we realise that there were ways that these cases on our campus could have been prevented, or at the very least been handled better after the fact. Students deserve to feel safe on campus, but how can we?
As we have read repeatedly, this year an investigation by the UN revealed that 97% of women between ages 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment or assault. The number of women including themselves as members of that disturbing statistic only continues to increase. I am one of them. It is likely every single woman reading this now has their own experience of gender-based violence or harassment. Saying “me too” has lost its shock factor, seeming more like a twisted rite of passage with each passing day. It is one thing saying that things need to change, but it should not fall to individuals to keep themselves safe. An entire culture shift is needed, and I want to believe it is coming, but until then, our institutions owe it to us to allow for and provide better safeguards, commit to facing instances of gender-based violence head-on, and take responsibility for mishandling those instances that weren’t prevented.
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