Thousands of women start courses at colleges and universities across the UK every year, full of excitement and hope for the experiences that lay ahead of them. They might move to a vibrant new town, they’ll make new friends, and they’ll be looking forward to studying a course that will help them achieve their dreams.
But within the first week of term, almost a fifth of them will be the victim of some form of sexual harassment or assault – and almost a third will witness someone else experiencing sexual harassment.
That this sort of behaviour is so prevalent, and becoming normal in some people’s minds, is horrifying.
That is why women will come together tonight in Cardiff for NUS Wales’ annual Reclaim the Night rally and march. This will be a display of defiance to the sexism, assault, abuse, and oppression they routinely face at home, at work, in the classroom, and throughout society.
Reclaim the Night started in the UK after Peter Sutcliffe murdered young women and sex workers in and around Leeds in the 1970s. The advice police gave young women at the time was not to go out at night for their own safety.
That was far from helpful, especially for those young women who were involved with sex work, who plainly had very little choice about going out at night.
Women organised Reclaim the Night marches to make the point that it was their right to feel safe out at night, and that the onus to avoid sexual violence and rape was not on women to dress conservatively and drink minimally, but rather on men, very simply, not to rape.
You might think that was then, and this is now. But if you are a woman out at night now, in today’s Wales, you will more than likely still feel the same as most other women: unsafe.
Our world remains an unsafe and unequal place for women and girls.
January saw the inauguration of a US President whose views on women, or as he has called us, ‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’, ‘slobs’, and ‘disgusting animals’, are well-documented. Think “grab ‘em by the pussy”.
Add in the fact that the UK will leave the European Union in two years’ time. We will be leaving a European Union which has been incredibly influential in developing women’s rights, not just here in the UK, but across its 28 member states. Leaving the European Union means leaving Equal Pay for Equal Work and maternity pay in the hands of a Conservative government obsessed with cutting ‘red tape’.
These are difficult and dangerous times to be a woman. But women now are doing as women throughout history have done, like the Suffragettes and the women who made an undeniably crucial contribution to the French Resistance during the Second World War. We are resisting.
21 January was the largest, and most peaceful, day of protest in US history, according to some political scientists. The Women’s March across the US—which spread around the world, including to Cardiff and Bangor—sprung up in response to the inauguration of a man with a rich history of misogyny and bigotry. But they marched, too, with their LGBT+ sisters, their BAME sisters, and their migrant sisters.
Speak to some people, and they will tell you that women’s rights are a ‘non-issue’, or that the fight for women’s equality is over, and that gender parity has been won. That could not be further from the truth. The facts speak for themselves.
One in six lesbian, gay, and bi people have experienced a homophobic or biphobic incident or hate crime during the past three years, according to research by Stonewall. What’s more, 38% of trans people have experienced physical intimidation or threats.
And while violence against women transcends different ethnic groups, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women face additional forms of gender-based violence, which are themselves compounded by society’s racist practices and attitudes. We’re not just talking about oppression in the form of sexual or physical violence.
Arguing that white men are like “endangered species” in boardrooms, the Chair of Tesco’s board, John Allan, said that “if you are female and from an ethnic background – and preferably both – then you are in an extremely propitious period.”
This, despite leading a board of directors on which men outnumber women three to one. And despite research by recruitment firm Egon Zender which suggests that the rate of improvement in gender diversity has declined in the UK for the first time since it began collecting data in 2004.
And writing for Raconteur last December, even Margot James, the UK Government’s Small Business, Consumers, and Corporate Responsibility Minister, acknowledged that “while 14 per cent of our population identifies as black and minority ethnic, only 1.5 per cent of directors in FTSE 100 boardrooms are UK citizens from a minority background. More than half of the FTSE 100 boards are exclusively white.”
So, please, let us not fool ourselves into believing that our fight is over. It is far from over. Reclaim the Night is about resisting violence, particularly sexual violence, against women. But it is also a symbol of resistance against the many and varied forms of oppression that women face every day, most especially those women who have intersectional identities, like BAME women, disabled women, and LGBT+ women.
It is in their spirit, and in the spirit of the countless defiant women before us, that tonight we will shout, “Whose streets? Our streets!” Together we can, and we will, resist. Now—exactly now—is the time for us to stand together and keep up the fight for a safe, better, and equal world.
NUS Wales’ annual Reclaim the Night Wales march will start from Cardiff University Students’ Union tonight at 8.00pm, with placard-making and a rally from 6.30pm.