Being alone in parks doesn’t harm women

“I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks – I’m sorry to say that. That is the case” – Homicide squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes, Victorian Police.

On March 17th 2015, a 17 year old woman was killed in a suburban park, not far from her home.

It doesn’t matter that she was alone. It doesn’t matter if it was dark (it wasn’t). It doesn’t matter if she was wearing headphones. She was killed by a man who decided to kill her.

In his comments to the media, Victorian Police homicide squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes indicated that women shouldn’t be alone in parks if they want to stay safe. He later claimed, following widespread criticism, that he didn’t actually say that but the audio is there. He absolutely, 100% certainly did say it.

The Detective isn’t alone in his silly statements. I’ve previously written about Acting Inspector Dan Richardson of the New South Wales police, who described the violent stranger rape of a woman as an “unfortunate reminder for people to avoid walking alone” and stating that “it might have helped if a different route was taken”.

I could write again and again about the statistical futility of risk reduction messages. I could point out that I’m more likely to be harmed by a male that I know, in my own home, than by a stranger in the park. But people – the police included, apparently – will continue to tell us that if she hadn’t been alone, she might have been safe; if she’d just walked a different way, she might have been safe.

But here’s what they’re forgetting: women already do alter their behaviour to try to ensure their personal safety.

And they still die. They still get raped. They still get assaulted.

Ask any woman to list the things they do to “keep themselves safe” and I guarantee it will look pretty much like my list:

  • If possible, avoid going out after dark,
  • Avoid making eye contact,
  • If I have to be walking alone and there’s not a lot of people around, make a phone call so I have someone to talk to, or at least pretend to be on the phone,
  • If I have to be walking alone and it’s not dark outside, wear headphones to block out the street harassment,
  • Ensure my mobile, keys, perfume or anything that could possibly be used in self-defence is within reach at all times,
  • If I’m walking alone and someone else is walking too close to me, cross the street,
  • Take particular note of what that person walking near me looks like – clothing brands, heights, weight, other identifying features,
  • If I am out late, I don’t catch a bus. I have to take a taxi, and I take note of the registration number and the driver ID.

It’s exhausting just thinking about it, but these are the things that I, and I’m guessing millions of other women, do on a daily basis. Consciously or not, I adhere to most of those goddamn safety messages. A lot of women do.

So, Detective Inspector Michael Hughes, to you and anyone else that wants to keep reminding us that women just have to bear some of the responsibility for their own safety, I want to say this:

We already place limits on ourselves.

We already restrict our movements.

We already stop ourselves from living life the way we want to, the way we should be able to.

And we’re still being raped. We’re still being murdered.

Women aren’t the problem here.

Doing something

**Trigger warning for assault, violence**

I heard the scream. I saw the hit. And this time, I did something.

Tomorrow, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And last night, I got a reminder of why such a day is so important, and so necessary.

Walking through the city on a busy Saturday night I watched as a 20 year old woman was hit by her boyfriend. He swung hard, making contact with her face. She fell, hitting her head on the road. I ran to help her up, her knees were scraped and bleeding, and cut on the back of her head was dripping blood down the back of her neck.

As I helped her off the ground, I saw the angry red welt on her cheek, her lip had been split open causing blood to colour her teeth and trickle down her chin.

And her boyfriend sat on the side of the street, saying that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

We were approached by two police officers. I was relieved. Here in Australia, I thought, a country so unlike Timor, the police would act. They would help. They would do something. It wasn’t like witnessing the violence I encountered in Timor. In Australia, I knew what to do. The police would act, right?

The boyfriend, of course, said he hadn’t done anything. The young woman told the police that it had all been a misunderstanding. She didn’t want him to be in any trouble, she said.

I told the two police officers what I’d seen. I’d heard the crack as his fist connected with her cheek and the thud as she hit the road, face down. Standing next to me the entire time was a 20 year old woman who was bruised, the blood from her injuries creating a permanent reminder of her ordeal as it dripped onto her white dress.

And then I was informed that the police were “unable” to do anything. If she wouldn’t admit what had happened, there was “absolutely nothing” they could do.

Again, I went over what I’d seen, my friends corroborating each detail. I begged the police to do something, anything. They told me it would be better if I just left and carried on with my night. I refused to leave the woman alone with a man who had beaten her so badly.

I begged the young woman to come with me. I offered to go home with her. I tried in vain to get her to tell the police what had happened. It was the first time he’d done anything like it, she said, repeating over and over that he’d never hit her before and he would never do it again. I couldn’t work out if she was trying to convince me or herself.

We exchanged phone numbers and she promised to check in with me later in the night. The police left. The young woman and her boyfriend got in a taxi and drove away – her battered and bleeding, him getting away with causing her injuries.

I left, wondering how I had let her go. I should have done more. I should have tried harder.

And then I realised, there wasn’t much more I could have done. But, there was more that the police could have done. Much more that they should have done. They could’ve asked her more questions. Her boyfriend was visibly drunk. They could have arrested him for public drunkenness if they couldn’t arrest him for assault. They could have bought her some time: time away from someone so violent, time to process what had happened, time to find safety. They could have considered the fact that she had just taken a hit to the head, was possibly in shock, and was bleeding from several injuries that might have required medical attention.

But they didn’t do any of those things. They took my name, address and phone number. They took her name and number. They didn’t get any personal details for him, the one who had actually committed a crime.

I recently wrote about how disappointed I was in myself for witnessing violence and staying silent. Last night, I stepped in. I spoke out. I did something. Today, I’m not disappointed in myself.

But I am disappointed in two police officers and a society that doesn’t take violence against women nearly as seriously as it should.