In sunshine or shadow we must reclaim these streets

June 22, 2021

Image concept by Hannah Hutchings. Photograph with model Jia Obhrai

Hannah Phelps explores the damaging effects of sexual harassment on women and girls

So far 2021 has been another year full of uncertainty. Anticipation looms over us as we hope to reach the final stages of the global pandemic.

However, I’m feeling an extra wave of uncertainty surrounding an issue deeply rooted within our society.

A recent investigation by UN Women UK, a charity dedicated to the empowerment of women, found 97% of women and girls experience sexual harassment in public spaces. You or someone you know will have been affected.

As a young woman, I continue to live my life cautiously, especially when out alone.

The truth is, it can be scary. Every time I leave my house, I’m super-aware of my surroundings, day or night. I can have headphones in, but I can’t actually listen to music, as that would lessen my ability to be vigilant.

As a rule, I don’t walk home alone after a night out in case I get approached or attacked. I’m hyper-cautious at the gym in case I’m being filmed or photographed. I’d be devastated if a video of me ended up in the wrong hands. It would leave me feeling vulnerable and under threat.

I’ve been deeply affected by the recent tragedies involving Sarah Everard and Blessing Olusegun. These cases serve as a brutal reminder of how women can be subject to such unwarranted danger.

Every 10 minutes somewhere in the world a teenage girl dies as a result of violence at the hands of a man or boy

I still remember the first time I got harassed. I was walking home, one windy night, from a friend’s house along a busy main road. As I was walking, I heard a continuous beeping noise. I looked up anxiously and a car had slowed right down to keep pace with me. The passenger rolled down the window and a guy started shouting lewd comments at me. Startled and afraid I put my hood up, head down and keys out. As the car sped up, I ran as fast as I could. Luckily I wasn’t far from home and got back safely.

Another memory, which stays with me, was when I was waiting for my mum to pick me up from school one sunny afternoon. Again, a car slowed down and was only a few inches from me. A guy hanging out the window, beeped and yelled abusive comments. What makes this memory the most sickening and difficult to process is the fact that I was in my school uniform. The predator could see I was a child.

These experiences and many more are universal. UN Women UK reports almost 90% of women in cities around the world feel unsafe in public spaces and every 10 minutes somewhere in the world a teenage girl dies as a result of violence at the hands of a man or boy.

Last year I was hoping to create a short film based on womanhood, but due to the pandemic that wasn’t possible. You can read more about this in my article here.

I wanted to shine a light on street harassment by replicating some of my experiences. I scripted one scene in particular, which describes three schoolgirls walking home. A white van crawls up beside them. A bunch of guys leer through the open windows, hurling abuse at the girls. They panic and freeze at the threat that the men might jump out of the van and attack them.

One of the girls expresses how angry she feels. She questions why she’s made to feel so scared and ashamed while doing nothing other than going about her daily life.

I felt it was important to highlight how commonplace and unprovoked street harassment is for young girls and children, as well as women.

This year conversations have started by the Reclaim These Streets movement. They speak out about how ‘streets should be safe for women regardless of what we wear, where we walk or what time of day or night it is.’

In September 2020 legislation was passed making it mandatory to teach Relationships and Sex Education in schools

Reclaim These Streets challenges misogyny in the way our laws are written and enforced. It aims to educate boys and men to take responsibility for the huge problem of violence against women and girls.

While rape and sexual assault are an offence in UK law, sexual harassment is not. Sexual harassment can cause long-term emotional damage and is totally and utterly unacceptable.

I was very happy to see that in September 2020 legislation was passed making it mandatory to teach Relationships and Sex Education in schools in England. We all have a responsibility to teach our children basic core values.

Another way to help reclaim the streets is to call out friends, family members and strangers alike who harass women. I believe we must all speak up if we witness someone being compromised and made uncomfortable. Staying silent and turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable when this issue is affecting almost all women and girls.

I’m hopeful for change and I do believe we’re heading in the right direction. Through Reclaim These Streets and the new compulsory education legislation in schools, future generations will start to address inappropriate behaviour towards women and girls. We clearly need and deserve to feel safer and more comfortable in this chaotic world we live in.

I encourage you to make a difference by raising awareness of the issues I’ve talked about here. You could start by sharing your experiences at Everyone’s Invited. This is a movement committed to tackling rape culture and harassment in schools by providing a platform for survivors to share their stories.

It’s essential that we start conversations early and continue to talk until we can walk home alone in peace and safety!

Funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, distributed by CommUNITY Barnet Giving has helped us with this work. Thanks to National Lottery players for making this possible.

Hannah is a BA Film graduate from Bournemouth University. She has been involved with various Exposure projects over the last few years which have helped to build her confidence and experience as a filmmaker. She loves to collaborate with talented individuals and aims to reflect this within her work and future career.

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