Around 500 people marched through Exeter city centre on Thursday evening to highlight the issue of male violence against women in public spaces.
Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services, local feminist groups and students from the University of Exeter organised the protest under the banner of Reclaim the Night Devon to coincide with the first day of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual international campaign coordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.
The campaign began on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, international Human Rights Day.
The march began at St. Sidwell’s Community Centre, with protesters chanting “What do we want? Safer streets! When do we want it? Now!” as they made their way down Exeter High Street and through the Guildhall shopping centre, finishing with a rally in Bedford Square.
Organisers were keen to ensure the event was inclusive and child-friendly, with marshals on hand to ensure safety. Caroline Voaden from Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services said the walk was about “visibility rather than confrontation”.
Mandy Barnes of Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services said the context in which the march was taking place “reminds us all that violence and harassment is still an ongoing concern for women in Exeter and Devon, as well as across the globe, and that it is a human right for us to be able to feel safe out on the streets where we live.”
Protester Karina Gilbert, a 17-year old college student, said: “I’m here because I’m tired of the discrimination I get for the clothes I wear and that people assume that when I wear a short skirt that I’m asking for it.”
She added: “I’ve had lots of remarks from men at night-time that have made me feel very uncomfortable. It scares me because I’m only 17 and this might be what my sisters, who are 13 and 11, might go through.”
Emma Pope from Feminist Devon also said she did not feel safe walking around at night. She said: “There’s always the cliché — keys in your pocket and make sure I’ve got my mobile phone on just in case I’m in a space where I feel really, really uncomfortable.”
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw, who attended the march, said he thought that the issue of the safety of women and girls “has really come to the fore recently in some very tragic and unfortunate ways”.
He added: “It’s something that I think we, collectively, as a society need to do a lot more about and the government certainly needs to do a lot more about.
“We have the opportunity now with legislation going through Parliament for the government to do something about this and I very much hope they will listen to the voices of women and men here today and around the country.”
In October Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally overruled an attempt to criminalise public sexual harassment under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently at report stage in the Lords.
Despite pressure from Home Secretary Priti Patel, women’s rights campaigners and a cross-party alliance of MPs to amend the bill, he claimed there was “abundant” legislation already in place.
A report published earlier this year by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for UN Women found that more than 70% of women have been sexually harassed in a public space. This rises to 86% among women aged 18-24.
Devon and Cornwall Police recorded 4,542 sexual offences in the year to June 2021, with 164,763 sexual offences reported across England and Wales as a whole.
Although 84% of sexual offences are perpetrated against women and girls, only one in six female victims report their experiences to the police, often for fear of being disbelieved.
And Home Office figures show that fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police in 2020 resulted in a suspect being charged or summonsed.
Reclaim the Night marches started in the UK in 1977, when torchlit events were held in Leeds, York, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton and London in response to the serial murders of women by Peter Sutcliffe. Police advice at the time was that women should keep themselves safe by not going out at night.
Reclaim the Night has since grown across the rest of the country and has evolved to focus on rape and male violence generally. It gained new momentum this year with the high-profile murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, with protests taking place across the UK on Saturday and others scheduled in the coming days.
There are parallel efforts under way to teach men to be better allies to women. A men-only programme called Stand by Her began this month in Nottingham, aiming to educate men about issues around harassment and assault faced by women and giving them the skills and confidence to challenge bad behaviour. The programme is also being delivered in London and Greater Manchester.
Communities Inc, which created the programme with Nottinghamshire Women’s Aid, said: “Being an ally, showing solidarity or intervening as a bystander can positively impact girls’ and women’s experiences. It also sends a powerful message and sets a better example for other men so girls and women can live their lives without fear.”