Ask any woman about her experiences of public space and you’re likely to be met with a visible bristle as she remembers all the times she was subjected to unwanted harassment, abuse or even physical violence.
Public space can be dangerous for everybody (and in fact, men’s risk of violence is drastically higher in such places than it is in domestic settings), but it tends to be dangerous for women in very specific ways.
Unfortunately, this risk to women is also countered by a mistrust of women’s testimonies. When we talk about our experiences of harassment and violence, we are often told we’re either overreacting or lying outright. The scepticism shown to women (not only from men but also from other women) crosses between both the private and public spheres, but the latter is especially galling in a society that uses the threat of Stranger Danger to try to control women’s behaviour.
Simply put, we are told to exercise caution in public because of “bad people”, but we are disbelieved when we take charge of our narratives and offer accounts of the very things we are told to be afraid of.
Public transport is one of the biggest areas of safety concern for girls and women, with many of us going out of our way to avoid certain lines or stations particularly after dark. But our fears aren’t limited solely to the use of public transport – access to and from stations and stops is also a cause for concern, especially if that access involves walking down dimly-lit streets.
I have friends who avoid walking home from public transport stops after certain times, choosing to catch taxis instead. Leaving aside the financial burden this places on women, the risk of harm to women who use taxis and rideshare services has also been well documented.
So for many of us, it becomes a coin toss between which scenario you think is less likely to see you come to harm, as opposed to actually being safe.
Again, it’s difficult to discuss these issues openly without being met with extreme resistance. The mass social gaslighting that’s always in operation whenever women discuss issues of safety and risk has convinced many of us that it’s not worth it to speak openly about it.
Instead, we share our information with each other along the grapevine. Don’t catch this line at this time, avoid this station completely and beware this area right now because a guy just trailed me in his car as I was walking home.
In this way, women can clumsily collate the information we need to make more informed choices about our safety without having to run the risk of being mocked for caring about it in the first place.
This is partly why Plan Australia’s Free To Be project, analysis from which was released on Thursday, is so powerful. With the help of XYX Lab, the organisation mapped the experiences of girls and women using public transport across Victoria over two months in late 2016 to collate a more comprehensive picture of the areas that were considered “happy” or “sad” for commuters’ use.
More than 1300 pins and 600 comments were left on the interactive map, with the vast majority of respondents (72 per cent) aged below 30.
Many had experienced incidents of sexual harassment and/or abuse. One respondent recounted the time she was chased along the Richmond train platform by a group of drunk men. Another talked about being on board a train while a man stared at her intensely. When she disembarked at Flinders Station (a major interchange) he followed her and boarded her next train. “No one helped me,” she said.
Other “sad” stations noted were Brunswick, Jewell, Footscray and Box Hill, with respondents citing a heightened sense of caution particularly where lighting is dim and uniformed safety officers were lacking.
Addressing this lack of safety for women isn’t just vital because of the current and immediate impact it has on lives. If public spaces are dismissive or hostile to women’s specific safety needs, women will avoid using that space. It’s an insidious way to undermine women’s right to participate in public life in the same way men do, because the playing field is uneven from the get go.
This isn’t just my own feminist take – it’s the findings of almost every major research study done on how public space accommodates women’s safety needs.
Australia lags behind other countries when it comes to addressing how public space can either exacerbate gender inequality or improve outcomes for those marginalised by it, so the work of XYX Lab is a welcome (and long overdue) response that must be capitalised on by policymakers and urban planners.
Fundamentally, the drive to design cities with the needs of girls and women in mind is a way to advance gender equality, rather than shift privilege from one group to another. The United Nations recognised how important these considerations were way back in 2001, stating in a report: “when a space is occupied by women and girls, it is also occupied by more people in general.”
It is not up to girls and women to fit themselves into a society that was traditionally built for men who dominated public space. It’s up to a progressive, advanced society to recognise that the landscape has changed, and adjust itself accordingly.
Clementine Ford is an author and Fairfax Media columnist.