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Harassment of women: an app is no substitute for real safety

The Home Office has been trumpeting new phone software that allows a ‘guardian’ to track women’s movements in an attempt to protect them while out and about. LYNNE WALSH chats to the experts for their views

THE safety of women and girls, on our streets and public transport, has been a big news topic again recently, thanks in part to a controversial new app praised by the Home Office.

“Path” was briefly trumpeted by the government, before immediately being roundly criticised by women’s charities and campaigns.

This gizmo aims to get us to log our “loved ones” as “guardians” on our phones; we’re expected to post details of a journey, and if we deviated from that or stopped moving altogether, they’d be alerted. 

The app’s developer Harry Mead says he’s had female friends pestered or assaulted in public spaces, and he wanted to “do his bit” to prevent this. It’s a crowdfunded notion, it seems, but funding is not at all transparent.

So, where to start, with all the questions this prompts? I had my own responses, as a woman typically pestered in public more times than Boris Johnson has wandered into parties, and as a professional working on major public health campaigns. But I felt the need of a vox pop, so went and stood outside the local post office, asking passers-by for their views.

They weren’t impressed:

“Who are these guardians — friends who will run to help us?”
“What — am I alerting someone else who will phone the police for me? What’s the point of that?”
“So — let’s get this right — as women, we need to find other people to be our guardians? Could I suggest that we give police a new app, so they can stop, arrest, charge and imprison men for causing the problem?”

I’ve omitted the florid swearing from that last quote, but you get the gist.

For the vast majority of women and girls, this isn’t only a current media topic, of course. It’s daily life. It’s the journey home which turns nasty, when some strange man starts chatting to you on the bus, then goes from oily to threatening when you don’t chat back. It’s the men in the pub garden who interrupt you and your female companion, and take it badly when you’re not sweet and inviting. It’s the footsteps following, the hand around the throat, the sexual assault, rape, murder.

Last year saw the highest ever number of rapes recorded in England and Wales, a total of 61,158 offences recorded in the year up to June 2021. 

That figure needs to be read again, I think, probably aloud. It’s a statistic which makes some fearful. It should make all of us furious.

It’s fair to say that women are angry, and unimpressed by the notion that an app would do much to fill the perilous vacuum created by the paucity of police officers, support services, street lighting, and all the resources we’ve fought for, lost, reclaimed, lost, clawed back, and lost again. 

While the Home Office has been unable to answer many questions about the new app, it still boasts of various schemes including the Safety of Women at Night Fund, where “initiatives include the trial of drink spiking detection kits, a transport safety campaign and training for night time economy staff to prevent these crimes from taking place.” 

There’s the “online tool, StreetSafe, which will enable the public to anonymously report areas where they feel unsafe.”

And the Safer Street Fund. Here, “initiatives will aim to increase safety in public spaces and emphasise changing attitudes and behaviours in local communities.”

Often, facing a tsunami of such government verbiage, I turn to real experts.

Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, took a look at the Path app: “This initiative from the Home Office flies in the face of advice and evidence from our experts across the women’s sector who have, for decades, been asking that the responsibility for the choices of violent men is not put upon women to ‘keep ourselves safe.’

“It’s yet another example of the piecemeal, ill-thought-through response from our government to what is a global epidemic of male violence against women, and which reveals that the interventions made by government appear at best tokenistic, and at worst simply colluding with male entitlement to violate and abuse women.”

Jayne Butler, chief executive of Rape Crisis, says: “Whilst this app may have been made with the best intentions, it is yet another tool by which women and girls are made to feel responsible for keeping themselves safe from male violence. 

“The constant restriction of our freedoms feeds the narrative that by taking certain actions we can avoid rape and sexual abuse, and suggests that women and girls that don’t take these precautions are therefore responsible for what happens to them. 

“This is absolutely not the case: the only person responsible for sexual violence is the perpetrator.”

And she has some firm recommendations for a better way forward: “To effectively address the problem of violence against women and girls, we need to focus on the harmful sexist attitudes that underpin it. 

“That involves public awareness campaigns targeted at perpetrators and highlighting what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, it involves proper sex education that focuses on consent and healthy relationships, and it involves ensuring our criminal justice system acts as a deterrent so that perpetrators know they cannot get away with these crimes.”

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) says: “The Path Community app is the latest in a range of superficial responses to violence against women we’ve seen announced over the past year. 

“Measures aimed at monitoring women’s movements rather than the actions of perpetrators wrongly place the burden on women to be constantly vigilant and keep themselves safe from violence. 

“Women already take many safety precautions when they go out, but this alone can never be enough to prevent abuse.”

She goes further: “Solutions focused on women’s safety are producing measures that fail to get to the root of the problem: men’s attitudes and behaviour. This app will do nothing to deter a perpetrator intent on harming women, nor will it address the deeply rooted attitudes, norms and inequality that underpin violence against women.”

Now, I’ll admit to being biased, as these are the experts I’d consult, were I still working on public health campaigns. I mourn those days, pre the 2010 general election, when we still benefited from the Central Office of Information (COI). 

That new “hung” administration scrapped the lot, losing decades of expertise and knowledge in research, honing techniques for listening to people, assessing what they needed, and formulating some decent ways to communicate with them. The COI wasn’t perfect, but it offered the chance for ordinary people to have agency and make informed decisions about their own lives. 

So, as the Path app gets lost up a cul-de-sac of its own making, I turn back to the vox pop. As the women I’d asked returned from their pilates class (this is Hampton, readers), I asked what they’d do, to tackle violence against women.

“Self-defence classes! I’ll write to my MP, lobby and campaign and write letters. Meanwhile, I want me and my daughters to be safe.”

And here, I turn to expertise again. I’ve been practising by following comrade Stewart McGill’s teaching, some of it free and online.   

A senior martial arts instructor with the British Combat Association, McGill has some useful advice for women and girls on public transport: “Sit or stand in a position that enables you to get away quickly. Don’t go upstairs on the bus and sit on the back by a window. Buy a cup of black coffee and keep the lid on through the journey if you want a nice handy weapon.

“And draw attention to the situation if you get up or choose to speak out. Say: ‘Don’t talk to me like that and keep your distance/hands off me,’ or something similarly emphatic to draw attention. 

“And if you see someone being harassed, go over and ask if you can help and start talking to them. Once one person steps in then others are more inclined to join in.”

But he’s well aware that his teaching is not the big solution: “Women can take appropriate precautions and I would always recommend that they learn some fundamental self-defence techniques, but men are the problem here: the onus has to be on eradicating a violence and toxicity in male culture that dehumanises women.”

And so say all of us. Meanwhile, we’ll lobby, support one another, and learn to kick back. 

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