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Reclaim the Night protest against sexual violence and harassment of women and girls in public space

Exeter event takes place after survey finding that 85% felt unsafe or very unsafe when walking alone in city centre at night, with police figures showing violent and sexual offences exceed 35% of all recorded crime in city.

St sidwell's community centre Exeter city centre Devon & cornwall police

A Reclaim the Night protest will take place on Thursday 1 December, when hundreds of people will again march through Exeter city centre to raise awareness of sexual violence and harassment experienced by women and girls in public space.

The event, co-ordinated by Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services, local feminist groups and students from the University of Exeter, takes place during 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign co-ordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.

Participants are invited to make placards and banners together from 4.30pm at St Sidwell’s Community Centre, where the protest will gather from 6pm to set off for Bedford Square at 6.30pm.

Reclaim the Night protest in Exeter High Street Reclaim the Night protest in Exeter High Street. Photo: Merryn Wilson.

An Exeter survey found in February this year that more than 85% of its 1,566 respondents felt unsafe or very unsafe when walking alone in the city centre at night. 98% identified as women and 71% were aged between 18 and 44.

A quarter said they had been affected by a sexual offence and a third said they had experienced harassment in the last three years.

When asked what they disliked about Exeter at night 70% said drunken behaviour, 60% said aggressive behaviour and almost half said they disliked the presence of gangs or groups.

When questioned about the survey findings at a meeting in April the city council criticised the survey design and refuted its headline findings, claiming they were inaccurate as “Exeter was, generally, a very safe city”.

Four days later a city councillor was sexually harassed and threatened with violence by a group of men outside a pub in a residential area of the city.

Reclaim the Night protest in Bedford Street Reclaim the Night protest in Bedford Street. Photo: Reclaim the Night Devon.

In the twelve months to the end of September Devon and Cornwall Police recorded 919 violent and sexual offences in Exeter city centre alone, alongside 872 incidents of anti-social behaviour.

These offences dominate the figures: well under half as many shoplifting offences were recorded in the city centre during this period, the next most frequently-occurring crime.

During the same period the police recorded 4,328 violent and sexual offences across the city as a whole, more than 35% of all Exeter recorded crime.

Office of National Statistics data separately identifies sexual offences at police force area level, excluding other forms of violence against the person.

These figures show that 5,495 sexual offences were recorded across Devon and Cornwall as a whole in the twelve months to June 2022, an increase of 21% over the previous year.

This increase is greater than the 19.5% rise across England and Wales, where nearly 197,000 sexual offences were recorded during the same period.

The proportion of sexual offences recorded in Devon and Cornwall as a share of all recorded crime is nearly 50% higher than it is across England and Wales.

Reclaim the Night protest in Princesshay Reclaim the Night protest in Princesshay. Photo: Reclaim the Night Devon.

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.

A report published in March last year by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for UN Women found that more than 70% of UK women have been sexually harassed in a public space.

This rose to 86% among women aged 18-24, only 3% of whom reported not having experienced any of the types of harassment identified in the report at all.

Full-time students are more likely to experience sexual assault than people in any other occupational group.

Reclaim the Night placard-making at St Sidwell's Community Centre Protest placard-making at St Sidwell’s Community Centre. Photo: Reclaim the Night Devon.

Reclaim the Night protests began 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 subsequently grew across the rest of the country before gaining new momentum last year when the high-profile murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa prompted protests across the UK.

32 year-old Lorraine Cox was brutally murdered in Exeter in 2020 after her killer followed her through the city’s streets. She had been out socialising with friends.

Reclaim the Night protest at Guildhall shopping centre Reclaim the Night protest at Guildhall shopping centre. Photo: Merryn Wilson.

Mandy Barnes of Reclaim the Night Devon said: “Violence and harassment is still an ongoing concern for women in Exeter and Devon as well as across the globe.

“It is a human right for us to be able to feel safe out on the streets where we live.”

Caroline Voaden, CEO of Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services, added: “We know that many people have never been on a march before and may feel slightly unsure about joining in but we would encourage anyone who cares about women and children to come along.

“The atmosphere will be light, you will be amongst people who feel the same as you and the walk is about visibility rather than confrontation.

“Marshalls ensure this event is safe for everyone, including children”.

Reclaim the Night Exeter takes place on Thursday 1 December.

Placard and banner making begins at 4.30pm at St Sidwell’s Community Centre, where the march gathers at 6pm before setting off for Bedford Square at 6.30pm.

Organisers are looking for women to volunteer to help run the event. Contact Reclaim the Night via email to find out more.

A Reclaim the Night protest will also take place in Torquay on 8 December.



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