Reclaim the Night 2015

On Friday 27th November, hundreds of students from the University of Bristol and from the local community took to the streets of Bristol’s City centre in a protest to reclaim their right to walk the streets at night without the threat of harassment or sexual abuse. "Reclaim the Night" is a national movement against sexual violence and advocating gender equality.

Set against the backdrop of a busy city hum the protest commenced with a candlelit minute of silence to acknowledge and pay respect to sexual abuse victims and survivors. The procession, chanting for “unite” against assault and victim-blaming journeyed from Queen’s Square through to Augustine’s Parade  and up Park Street en route to the Student’s Union. The marchers demanded to know, “whose streets?” to which the crowd responded as a roar, “our streets!” 

(All photo credits: Jamie Corbin)

I spoke to Bristol SU’s Women’s Officer and event campaigner Chloe Maughan about the intention of the event and she said it was to: “challenge the double standards of a society where women have been socialised to fear the streets at night and to believe you shouldn’t walk alone in them. It was also about acknowledging those women who have been subjected to sexual abuse or harassment and even highlighting the fact that even though many women may not have ever experienced violence on the streets at night, they still walk home fearing for their safety. This event is aimed to challenge and question those socialisations, and create a safe space for women and oppressed genders to voice what they want to change.”

We also spoke to graduate volunteer steward Annie Bell about her personal reasons for campaigning. She commented: “I think a lot of women don’t feel safe walking alone at night. For example I know that I often think twice about things such as wearing my hair up, because that would make me easier to grab, or about putting my headphones in as I might not hear someone coming up behind me. I think that’s partly because of the alarmingly high statistics of women being subjected to violence, particularly sexual, but also because women are frequently told they are responsible for preventing abuse. Like the idea that women should learn self-defence; they should go about in groups at night; they should moderate the way they dress, or run home to avoid harassment, all in aims of ensuring their personal safety. I don’t think that this is right. Women should feel safe to walk the streets at night. The way to make that happen is to cut back on the amount of sexual violence women are being subjected to by targeting the aggressors rather than the victim and by campaigning for our rights to be acknowledged in protests such as Reclaim the Night."

Chloe Maughan explained why the event is aimed towards women and people of LGBT community; “Part of the criticism vocalised by the community about last year’s event was whether the march should be open to all genders. Many felt like it hadn’t been appropriate for men to attend the event because of the effect it may have on survivors. This year, therefore, made a conscious decision attempt a balance between the student group (who generally do have interest in Reclaim the Night being an open march) whilst acknowledging our commitment to protect those who feel uncomfortable.” 

The organisers sensitively took precautions to create a safe space at the front of the march, cordoned off by stewards, where individuals who felt uncomfortable campaigning in a mixed-gender group had a safe place in which to protest. As a whole, the march was sensitively organised by the students’ union and the student steward volunteers, who jointly ensured the safety of the protesters throughout the march, which itself partially reflects the  changes taking place on campus.

Maughan discussed further welfare developments including a new project setting up “student safe zones”, inspired by Manchester University. She stated that it would involve venues that are open late at night putting up stickers in their windows to communicate that they are a student safe zone, which would mean that if you’re walking home at night and unsafe for any reason, you are welcome to go inside and seek refuge. Maughan also said that she hoped this would avoid the alarming statistics collated from studies within the university that have revealed that 50% of women don’t feel safe getting home at night.

Maughan espouses the City of Bristol’s involvement in improving the safety of its students at night. Fellow protester Megan Wilson informs us of her involvement with a union endorsed project set up to create a network for survivors in which they have a safe space to talk and have access to a peer mentoring scheme. The scheme, which they hope will be running by January, aims to create a support system for suffers of abuse who are on waiting lists to seek treatment, or for anyone that needs support in regards to their experiences.

Of course, sexual violence doesn’t only occur in the streets at night. The issues were discussed after the event in the Student’s Union, where protesters were invited to listen to performance poetry from the wonderful Radhika Jain, Cari Heighway and Canu Malta, who all shared their experiences of violent or oppressive behaviour from men, raising their voices on an evening of awareness where others might have felt unable to. 

Radhika’s poem in particular communicated on the diminution of sexual abuse and comments on the sexual criticism she received because of her race. She offered the heartfelt words of her experience to the audience: “although they pluck your petals they cannot stop your growth, because you have roots”.

Following this, Reclaim the Night asked members of the audience to their share stories and experiences. Before the volunteers took to the stage, Chloe Maughan explained that none of their stories had been submitted or reviewed to the organisers in order to create a platform for honest, self-expression and give the volunteers a chance to reclaim their stories. We spoke to one attendee called Eleanor who retold her story of sexual abuse; as a seventeen year old member of the wider community, Eleanor came to the University organised event after reading about it on Facebook. 

“After seeing the event I initially wasn’t too keen on putting myself forward to get involved, but it was coming up to the point of the one year anniversary of my attack. I wanted to create closure and solidify that it was over. It was an opportunity to share my story and end it; move on. I also wanted to prove to other women that it is possible, after being subjected to sexual abuse, to overcome the negative responsibility you put upon yourself. Because it’s never your fault: no means no.”

I would like to end this article with a message from Chloe Maughan:

“If you feel like you have ever grown up in a world where either you or women around you have been made to feel that you shouldn’t walk alone at night, then Reclaim the Night is an event for you to come and actively challenge that oppression, and reclaim your right to safety, whatever your gender. Our event is about making tangible change happen.”

If you have felt strongly effected or conscious of any of the issues that have been raised in this feature, please sign the petition and show your support for the change in social housing bands for domestic abuse suffers, in aid of preventing the risk of them finding themselves homeless due to their unfortunate circumstances.

You can also access the "Spotted Sexism at Bristol" page that is a space in which to report any sexual harassment to a safe medium.