In the year ending March 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 4.9 million women had been victims of sexual assault in their lives. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, all types of violence against women and girls has intensified.
As a woman in her 30s with a daughter, I read the often daily news stories of violence against women and feel increasingly uneasy. Just in the past year, we’ve seen our sexual and reproductive rights come under attack in the very country that is deemed the ‘leader of the free world’. The fall of Afghanistan has seen its schoolgirls prevented from accessing education and qualified women forced to stay at home and away from jobs they love, and closer to home – Sarah Everard, kidnapped and murdered by a serving police officer, and Sabina Nessa murdered in a park by a stranger. Any progress made by our female ancestors in fighting for gender equality feels like it is being slowly chipped away.
In January 2020, a female jogger was sexually assaulted in a park close to my home. It was a park I often visited with my children, and the assault filled me with dread. She was jogging through the park, at around 8pm. Her attacker approached her from behind, and she never got a clear look at him. I am a jogger myself and in the winter months, sometimes there is no choice but to jog in the dark (either early in the morning before work, or in the evening after work). I remember feeling scared to go out for my valued running time, and when I did go out – I felt constantly on alert, looking over my shoulder and changing routes to avoid quieter roads and paths.
I got talking to some other female runners and we decided to start a casual jogging group, safety in numbers and all that. We started a Facebook page, and within a few days, we had over 200 members. 99% of members were women who felt unsafe jogging alone and the platform quickly transformed into a safe space for arranging exercise. We organised group runs in the evenings, ensuring we could jog with confidence knowing a large group were unlikely to be targeted; we made sure everyone stuck together and that people got home safely. People also used the platform to ‘buddy up’ if you couldn’t make a group run, and if you did decide to jog alone – you could post your route on the group and an expected finish time, so members could check on your whereabouts if needed. Our group also had several male participants who didn’t feel comfortable jogging alone, and it was great that they felt they were able to seek support in the group too.
Within the first week, we’d been interviewed by BBC East Midlands today, BBC Radio Derby and featured in countless online articles. We used the coverage to highlight the attack that prompted the group to form, and called on local authorities to improve park lighting and appeal for more witnesses in helping to identify the attacker. We were also approached by a local martial arts centre who offered us a free self-defence course, which was brilliant. Our local councillor arranged for 100 personal safety alarms to be distributed in our village. Our local running shop donated gift vouchers which we used as a prize to encourage members to participate in our monthly running challenges, something which is still taking place in the group almost two years on.
It’s frustrating that the onus remains on women to change their behaviour, and not on the perpetrators to stop committing crime. We should be able to walk home safely, we should be able to visit friends safely, we should have autonomy over our own bodies. But until these rights are realised, please get involved if you can. It’s amazing what you can achieve in your local community – and there is definite strength in numbers.
We must take action to end violence against women. On the 25th November 2021, the United Nations will launch an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The campaign will aim to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, will focus on bridging funding gaps, ensuring essential services are available for survivors of violence, as well as focusing on prevention and the collection of data that can improve existing services. You can find out more here https://www.un.org/en/observances/ending-violence-against-women-day.