Violence and harassment against women in public spaces is a major issue. By violence, it is defined as verbal, physical or sexual.
There are many gender equality disparities in society, never more so than during this Covid period. Gender violence in public space is an ongoing one. Men and women are not exposed to the same forms of violence and hence unequal in public space. It’s a topic that has received much needed awareness over recent years and more recently, here in Brussels. Yet, not enough is being done to tackle harassment against women.
A petition was recently launched ‘demanding’ safer public spaces, following an incident in Parc Cinquantenaire, involving the woman who initiated the campaign. Will this petition and campaign, that has gained public traction with over 7,000 signatures, encourage safer public spaces for women? Will it encourage those in power to rewrite or enforce local policies around safety in public spaces – ensuring they are carried out? Will police authorities ensure more police to stroll our streets and make them safer? Will there be less women carrying out their daily routines in public spaces? Will there be more lighting installed in those dark spots in these winter evenings? Will all potentially abusive and violent men be barred from public space – it’s highly unlikey!
There are many questions to be asked and answered with implementing safer and more inclusive public spaces for all.
With this in mind, I am also one in the many statistics that women’s networks, organisations and the UN Women talk about. It’s an everyday occurrence, from cities, communities to the rural areas around the globe: “It happens on the streets, in and around public transportation, schools, workplaces, public toilets, water and food distribution sites,” as UN Women states on their website.
I am a woman who has experienced violence in public space, many years ago when studying abroad and more recently. Yet I was ‘equipped’. By that I mean, I was trained in a martial arts, which protected and potentially saved me from a worse situation.
I believe all young girls and women should be taught self-defence. From school, home, office to the board room. No matter what colour, race, religion or background. Every women should learn how to defend herself.
It can be also taught in schools from a young age. Integrated into the gym classes. Encouraging youth/sports/school clubs and parents classes on teaching ‘no’ to any form of violence. At home and in any public space and that the answers do not lie in violence. Yet to defend oneself with an ’empty hand’ as Karate was for me, was incredibly empowering with my two experiences.
There I stood gasping for breathe at the street corner and local shop, not far from my home. I decided to give up the chase. Moments before I was determined I’d catch the young man that ran up to me, pushing me to try to grab my phone out of my hand in the middle of my local park. My ‘karate/self defence’ mode switched on instantly. I held on to my phone with my might, fingers grasping as tight as I could, I was not going to let go of my new phone! He appeared to be a young man, with a hoodie and tried to push me to the ground and steal my mobile phone. The ‘Glaswegian’ in me and my fighter instinct, wouldn’t give up without a struggle. I elbowed him away, striking him on the side of his face. He ran away.
This wasn’t the first time this happened to me. As a student studying abroad, it could have been more than a grab of the phone. I had also been walking early evening to meet a friend, when a motorbike came zooming up to me and the man tried to push me towards the sandy lane I was crossing. I instinctively took him on and pushed him off his bike and threw a right-handed boxer punch straight in his face as he fell to the ground. He was shocked and couldn’t get back on his bike quick enough. I ran away as fast as I could in case he decided to come after me again. Luckily he didn’t.
What he failed to realize, as did the young man in the park, was that I was trained in the martial art of karate. From my late teens to my early 30’s training, competing and winning at Scottish National level. I believe in both instances of being attacked, to be trained in the ability to defend myself – if any harm crosses my path – enabled me to get out of violent situations. The shock factor, was over quick for me, as I am resilient enough to get over such incidents quickly. Many women have to deal with consequences of psychological trauma and the impact of being a victim of violence.
This does not ‘excuse’ the dire need of what is required to create public safety measures for Brussels Region and beyond. There are many who may find it challenging to learn self-defense skills or a martial art, due to age, disabilities and a number of other reasons.
Therefore, we require mitigating risk assessments by a cross section of Regional and equality commissions, relevant authorities and representative organizations. With some foresight and scenario planning, the risks can be assessed around communities. Taking an integrated strategy with the community and place and dialogue with women’s networks with the police, mobility, urbanism, health & safety. Taking an inclusive approach with engaging women, LGBT and BAME communities. Working together with a coherent, coordinated, inclusive effort to enhance the well-being and safety of our public spaces for all women and society as a whole.
Whilst creating awareness for safer, inclusive public spaces, let’s also advocate for physically and mentally empowering our young girls, women and the cross-section of the community. Through education, awareness and sharing the benefits of learning self-defence for our well-being and safety. Especially when we have such amazing role models as the Belgian female Jui-Jitsu athlete and world champion Amal Amjahid.