“Because I am a woman”: The Student explores women’s safety in Edinburgh

TW: Sexual violence, sexual harassment, transphobia

In the wake of the disappearance and murder of  Sarah Everard, the debate about women’s safety has been reignited, with a study demonstrating that 97 percent of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment in public places. 

An investigation by The Student has found that 66.3 percent of women surveyed do not feel safe walking alone at night in central Edinburgh. 

The fear of being followed, harassed, attacked or raped were cited repeatedly as reasons to feel unsafe. 

One respondent said, “I’m a girl and it’s unnerving when the streets are empty but a few lone men and lone vans are on the road”. 

The meadows area was repeatedly named as an area of concern for women, especially given the recent spate of sexual assaults reported in the area since January and the poor lighting and lack of CCTV. 

“I live near the meadows and have heard from multiple female friends that they’ve been followed there, I don’t walk through the meadow alone at night now – it doesn’t feel safe.” 

Another woman added that there was “not enough CCTV” or “reliable lighting in the meadows”, adding “I used to walk home from a bar job frequently at 1-2am over the meadows and that is scary – especially when it is really quiet”. 

For many of the respondents, the pandemic has only exacerbated and worsened the situation for women. With restaurants and bars shut, many don’t feel  that they would have anywhere to go if they were to be followed at night. 

“It’s dark. At the moment with restrictions there aren’t many people about and it makes me vulnerable.”

“I used to feel safe, but since lockdown with shops and bars closed…if I would ever need help there is nobody to shout for”, added another woman. 

Some women even spoke of having to change their exercise routine due to having been harassed recently or feeling unsafe: 

”I recently had to stop my running schedule because I wasn’t feeling safe to go out running in the dark. I’d seen some reports of a dodgy man in Marchmont approaching women. I had felt safe until that.”

Set up in the summer of 2020, the ‘Edinburgh Anonymous’ instagram account collates anonymous submissions from students in Edinburgh to raise awareness of sexual violence and to empower victims and survivors. 

Speaking to The Student, the account said that 72 percent of submissions describe the perpetrator of sexual violence as either a friend or a partner, with 99 percent of them male perpetrators. 

One extract from a submission to the account said: 

“When I told my then boyfriend, he just couldn’t understand the gravity of the situation. It seemed he was almost embarrassed to talk about it, that it was something I should keep to myself.”

“The next time I saw my friend he told me that I shouldn’t tell anyone about what [his flatmate] did because it could really damage his reputation and potentially ruin his relationship”, said another anonymous submission. 

The administrators of the account believe that whilst initiatives such as increased lighting in dark spaces might make women feel safer, the biggest change in attitudes towards women’s safety will come through education. 

They told The Student

“I think what has been even more distressing is the stories which have detailed the passive bystanders in these incidents. 

“Those who say nothing and are therefore condoning and enabling a perpetrator to get away with their actions. This is where the most change can be made – through education.

“All too often men get defensive when discussing such a topic, and assume that if they are not the direct perpetrators then they are somehow exempt from helping create a solution. 

“This is simply not the case and the sooner this is recognised, the better chance there is at changing the culture.”

From the 2015/2016 academic year up until the 2019/2020 academic year, the University of Edinburgh received 53 complaints from students about sexual misconduct, with 45 related to the conduct of other students and eight related to the conduct of staff members. 

Of those 53 complaints, three members of staff and three students were expelled as a result of an investigation by the university. 

That means that 11 percent of complaints result in an expulsion at the university. 

Speaking to The Student, a woman University of Edinburgh student said she “would not expect anything to come of reporting such incidents [of sexual violence]” to the university because she doesn’t “have a lot of faith that the university would take concerns seriously or make changes to protect people coming forward.” 

Another added that it is a “traumatic process”. 

Recognising that there is much still to be done to empower women students to come forward and report incidents of sexual violence, the university has recently appointed a new Sexual Violence and Harrasment Liason Manager and will soon implement a new ‘Report and Support’ system. 

The Edinburgh Anonymous account has also had “several extremely helpful” meetings with the University of Edinburgh’s welfare team and feels that the university is listening to the feedback they have received from University of Edinburgh students. 

Of the women surveyed by The Student , only 49.4 percent said they would feel comfortable reporting incidences of sexual assault and harrasment to the local police. 

Many women indicated that they didn’t think they would be taken seriously and that the process of reporting sexual assault and harrasment was “built against” women. 

“I’ve reported stuff before and it has gone nowhere, and the process was so long.” 

“I am a rape survivor and have watched friends go through what is an archaic and demeaning reporting process in order to try to gain justice.”, another woman told The Student

The Student has also found that trans and non-binary women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in Edinburgh are less likely to report incidents of sexual assault and harrasment to the local police. 

“The police has been absolutely terrible at handling sexual harassment and assaults towards trans or non binary individuals”, said one woman. 

Another added, “I have had friends be treated poorly by the local police for being LGBT+, which I am also”. 

Image: Flickr