The discussions that have arisen since Sarah Everard’s death, prompted me to think about the safety of women in Suffolk. This article focuses on the perspective of those who identify as female. I am in no way trying to dismiss or diminish the experiences of those who identify as male or other.
I posted on various forms of social media asking the women of Suffolk, about their own experiences around sexual harassment and sexual assault. Women of all ages contact me, re-accounting their stories, some as recent as a few days prior and others from 30 years ago, that were still affecting them.
One response I received was from a minor, who can’t be named for legal reasons, but wanted to share her story. At 14, she woke up to a family member raping her. She told me she “had frozen up and didn’t say anything” because she “was scared.” I asked her whether she reported the abuse? She said
“I was scared at first…However, when I told my Dad it had happened, he reported it. The police turned up at my house around 4am and asked me questions about what happened and when. I felt scared talking to the police and shaken up. I felt like I was in trouble as a young person because I didn’t do anything at the time.”
I asked how the police responded and what action was taken, she recalls “filling out a purple sheet.” The next day she saw the police again and was interviewed. “They recorded me telling them what happened and asking questions.” The police also gathered evidence including “images of bruising inside of me, and cuts, they had all my clothes I wore, and my bed sheets. They also had the clothes he was wearing [and] they had messages on my phone.” Despite all of this, the case never went to court. She believes it is because the “morning it happened when I told my Mum and my Step Dad, my Step Dad ran me a bath… and I think that had an impact on the evidence and DNA”
This individual, is among many. On the 10th March 2021 ‘UN Women UK’, released data from an investigation revealing…
“71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. This number rises to 86% among 18-24-year-olds.
The two main reasons women of all ages cited for not reporting incidents are: “I didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report” (55%) and “I didn’t think reporting it would help” (45%)”
Lucy-May Turner, a 21-year-old student from Woodbridge, was 13 the first time she was catcalled. She said it “sticks in my mind…. I was going to the Co-op and three men in a van whistled at me and beeped their horns.”
When asked how it made her feel, she replied “I was completely alone and felt so scared.”
Many women have been taught not to retaliate to these kinds of interactions because of the notion, ‘you don’t know how they will react’ and as a result it’s considered a safer option, not to antagonise the person or people who may be harassing you. Lucy-May is an example of this, as she “put (her) head down and carried on walking”.
One of the precautions known amongst women is to not go out at night. 23-year-old Rachel May Groves from Kesgrave says going out in the dark is “out of the question.” She said “If I have to go out at night, I always have someone with me” and feels safer if she is accompanied by a man. However, she still doesn’t feel completely safe and doesn’t like that “the streetlights go out at 11:30pm.”
Rachel has also expressed her concerns during the day after an incident where she was followed by a man. It was 2pm, she was walking with her two young children in their buggy.
“I could sense he was getting closer and I had my phone ready in my pocket just in case…He quickly aborted whatever he was planning to do when two people suddenly came in view …that indicated to me that he was wanting to do something not very nice”
Since then, Rachel is even more aware of her surroundings.
“If I do have to go out on my own, I always make sure I have my phone in my pocket, along with my keys, in case I need to use them as a self-defence weapon! I always mentally note where I could potentially run to if I need to run somewhere for safety.”
After her experience she reached out to the locally via the ‘Kesgrave Community’ [a Facebook page] asking “how we can make woman’s safety better” but says “it was a complete backlash”. To counter this, Rachel has confirmed she will be teaching her boys “to respect woman.”
Another woman also said she will be educating her children “about personal safety, road safety and stranger danger” as well as “consent when he [her son] reaches high school.”
44-year-old Teresa Riches from Kesgrave is another woman who has felt threatened during the day. After being approached in “broad daylight” she has “not been out much in town” and if she does need to visit, she makes sure to drive “to make sure I can get back okay.” Similarly, to Rachel, Teresa also has precautions in place just to feel safer leaving the house.
“I don’t walk with headphones in. I keep looking around to be aware of who is around me. I usually plan my route via main routes and not quieter lanes and use close parking arrangements. If meeting people I don’t know too well, I have told a friend/family where I’ll be or put a contingency in place for them to ring me at a certain time to check I’m okay.”
Another woman said she, “makes sure my phone is always fully charged. Keep to lit, busy areas, carry a personal alarm and check in with my partner when travelling home.”
In my research I was told about the Town Pastors. The Town Pastors are “Christian volunteers from local churches who are out in town centres on Friday and/or Saturday nights, being a positive influence on the streets and providing help and support to vulnerable people.”
They work alongside “Police, door staff and CCTV and with the agreement and support of District Councils.” They can also be found in Haverhill, Felixstowe, Dereham, Beccles, Bury St Edmunds and Lattitude Festival.
41-year-old Carri James from Kesgrave, had her own experience with the Town Pastors
She previously worked at “Betty’s Nightclub in Ipswich (it’s no longer there) for 15 years on security. The town pastors were absolute angels. I lost count of the times drunk ladies had been ditched by their friends and had no money to get home. The town pastors always made sure they were okay.”
Due to her employment, Carrie often walked home around 3-4am and has been followed on two separate occasions. To evade the follower, she “ducked into the Pizzaria” where the employees knew her from frequently walking past. She said “they’d wave every time so (they) knew there was something wrong when I went in.” As a result, “one of the staff there walked me the rest of the way home”
“The second time I was walking to work at around 10pm. It was already dark. 2 guys were sitting on a bench but as I passed, they started following me, calling out, whistling and trying to get my attention. A colleague pulled up and offered me a lift the rest of the way to work.”
Carrie Later saw the same men while she was working and refused them entry into the club. “If they could treat me like that, a member of security in uniform, how would they be with women out and being intoxicated?”
Not only this but Carrie has witnessed other women’s fear. “On another occasion while walking home, there was a young lady walking in front of me. She kept looking back, she slowed down to let me pass and as I did, she said ‘oh thank god, you’re a woman’. I ended up walking her home before going home myself.”
Many women who contacted me also shared their experiences of harassment on nights out. The overall feeling was that they stuck to their friends as much as possible, and never allowed themselves to be alone. One woman told me on “one occasion I reported to security staff in a local nightclub. I was laughed at and told I enjoyed it. No action was taken.”
I wanted to find out what happens when action is taken and got in touch with 35-year-old Emma Jayne Kelly who works at the ‘Sexual Assault Referral Centre’ (SARC) as an ‘Independent Sexual Violence Advisor.’
I asked what measures are taken when someone comes to them. She informed me they “offer forensic examinations after a serious sexual assault by the forensic nurses, paediatric doctors and the crisis workers. They are offered sexual health screening and DNA is taken if they want to report to police as well as first disclosures.”
I asked what help the victims are given, to which Emma responded “They can be referred to and ISVA who will help to provide support along the criminal justice route as well as access to counselling, assisting with options and decision making, entitlements, sexual health follow ups, safeguarding, housing, finances, education and employment, substance misuse. Access to CYPS and ACS, safety planning and much more.”
Anyone who comes to the SARC is also given help following the incident. Emma said “We work with our clients for 8 weeks for those who do not wish to report and for 8 weeks after a criminal justice outcome Whether that be a trial or no further action decision. The ones that go to trial are with us for approx. 2-4 years.”
I also asked these women what they thought could be done in order to improve the current circumstances. The responses include “greater police/ street ranger presence would be a good thing. Or maybe a police booth in the town centre, manned 24/7 where we know we can get help”
“lights on at night, more camera’s, rape alarms, panic buttons”
“more presence, responding quickly to incidents”
After talking to these women I decided to walk around Ipswich, along the main roads, and see how many cameras I could find. I noted they mostly appeared on traffic lights and near ATM machines, locations where it was obvious something had monetary value. This made me question whether our bodies, our safety was something that was viewed as worth protecting. Or whether, the lack of cameras directed at footpaths indicated we, as humans, were less valuable than currency.
I contacted the Suffolk Police in regards to their views on the current situation and as of yet, have not received a response.