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No amount of streetlights will keep women safe on our streets

This article first appeared in The Western Mail in January 2022

Last week I led a run after a vigil held in memory of 23-year-old Ashling Murphy,  killed earlier this month while out jogging.

A journalist asked me why we had organised a vigil for this young woman in particular. The inference being, why was this life worth marking more than others?

The answer I gave? That the event honoured the memory of all women lost to male violence. 

The answer I wish I’d given? If we had a vigil every time a man killed a woman in the UK, somebody would have to organise one every three days. Surely the more pertinent question is – how do we rebuild the world, so we no longer need to attend vigils for murdered women?

As hundreds of people congregated in Grange Gardens, Cardiff, to remember another young woman snuffed out in her prime, it was notable how many were in running gear. On a cold January night, runners of all ages turned out to express their grief at the loss of a young woman who just went out for a run, never to return home. Because this senseless murder, involving an activity that many of us do every day, felt very close to home. 

Just a few weeks earlier, I’d been explaining to my partner that I don’t feel safe running an isolated track in his hometown when he’s away with work. The thought of not having somebody to send my Strava “emergency beacon” to was enough to put me off. I felt like a bit of a baby explaining this, if I’m honest. Cowardly, almost. And I hate that feeling. I hate that I feel the need to send a GPS tracker to somebody nearby who could respond if the tracker goes offline when I go for a run. More than anything, I wish I didn’t have to apply a different level of risk assessment to one of my favourite ways of spending time just because I am a woman. 

He was astounded when I explained that running at night was something I never do alone. Although to be fair, it’s so far out of his wheelhouse of life experiences – to be afraid of running alone in the dark – that it was the first time he’d ever considered it. 

Of course, not all women are afraid in the same way. I’ve been flashed at twice while running, which has influenced my outlook and decisions around safety. 

Many women choose to run at night, either unwilling to change their behaviour or unable to because work and caring responsibilities won’t allow it. I err on the cautious end of the spectrum and admire women brave enough to head out alone after dark. 

But then I’m lucky because my work allows me to run during daylight which means I don’t ever have to run at night. I made a decision a while ago that is now my default. But how much is it a “choice” really? Ideally, I’d love to run at any time of night or day without having to consider my safety, which is exactly how my partner runs. The unfairness of this burns inside me. 

A running friend did her Masters in barriers to women running and found that perceptions of safety when running alone was a big factor in stopping women keen to start running from doing so. Another running friend campaigns on Twitter (@DrAshleyMorgan1) for men to stop harassing women when they’re out running. She describes the fear women feel as a form of oppression that must be recognised as such.

Because it’s not just the (admittedly small) risk of murder or violent attack that stops women running. It’s the daily harassment, catcalling, abuse, and other unwanted attention we endure just for exercising. For deigning to leave the house in our trainers.

I asked another running friend that runs at night about her experiences. She said:

“I try not to but very often, it’s the only chance I get, particularly in winter. If it’s the morning, it can be the park, and I tend to run faster and be super alert, but I’ve never had a problem. If it’s the night, it tends to be lit-up roads. I stubbornly think, why should I change my ways? That’s not to say I haven’t sometimes avoided people, run faster, looked in shop windows to see who is behind, had my key clutched outwards in hand just in case. So I guess I do adjust my behaviour however unconsciously, however unwanted.”

And that’s the very heart of the problem, isn’t it? As women, we learn at a very young age to constantly scan the horizon for danger, to not put ourselves in situations where we are vulnerable to attack. To be on the defensive, fast forward the logic tape to the worst possible outcome and have a plan. Always. It’s additional mental effort, and it’s exhausting. 

Perhaps now the entire population is being forced to make micro-decisions around risk related to COVID-19, we are beginning to recognise the sheer mental load of living this way. As one male friend said to me this week: “I finally realise what women have had to do since you were old enough to be out alone in the world without your parents. I’ve been making daily decisions about pandemic-based risks for a year, and I’m exhausted. I can’t even begin to imagine how it feels to have to assess risk constantly, every day.” 

And that’s why it’s important we keep talking about this. When half the population don’t face the daily micro-decisions around risk that women do, we’ll never change it until they understand. So we need to keep talking. We need to keep reminding the men in our lives of their privilege and enlist their allyship in building a better world. 

Because no amount of streetlights will keep women safe – and therefore feeling safe – on our streets. Only a world where harassment and violence against girls and women are eradicated will do that. 

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