• White ribbon depicting the end of violence against women
27 Nov | Guest Blog | Gender Equality

On the 3rd day of Activism, my true love gave to me: a march for women’s equality

There is an alleyway in Leeds where I live, that I now know in my head as ‘the r*pe alley’. It didn’t used to be this way – well it did, but I just didn’t know it yet. It was just the alleyway I used to get home, used to go to school or work. It was convenient, decorated in spray paint tags and color bursts and tree covered. I walked this alley so many times in the dark, alone after having just parted ways with friends, and at those times, I didn’t feel frightened

But that doesn’t mean it was safe.

In October 2020, I reshared a post on Instagram that warned about a recent attempted sexual assault that happened in this alley. The post warned that two other attempted assaults had happened in this place that had been reported in the last two months, -- and when someone looked into the police records, it turned out that there had been 17 reported cases of violence and sexual assault in that alley between November 2019 and November 2020 [1]. MPs received emails, a private security company offered to chaperone anyone feeling uncomfortable walking through the alley, and within a week, a protest had been organized to reclaim Headingley Stadium. A project began to document the places in Leeds where people had been assaulted in order to identify ‘assault hotspots’ and the Leeds chapter of the activist group Reclaim the Night organized a walking tour of these areas in May 2021 to bring awareness to the prevalence of violence against women. It felt empowering to witness the community rise and respond to the situation at hand, and at the same time, it felt hard to wrap my mind around this new knowledge of the prevalence of violence. I remember looking at the map and seeing all the places I frequented regularly that had been places where violence had occurred. I remember feeling afraid to go outside alone at night that fall. When I had reshared the post on my Instagram story, a map of Leeds with a red line identifying the alley, a friend replied and asked, “Where isn’t the red line?”

Where isn’t there violence against women happening?  

Like in the alley, the true prevalence of violence against women is often hidden. Yet, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations (UN), nearly 1 in 3 women around the world (aged 15 years and older) have been subjected to physical and sexual violence at least once in their lifetime [2]. In this year’s campaign for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the UN calls our attention to the fact that, “while the forms and contexts of violence against women may differ across geographic location, women and girls universally experience different forms of violence in public and in private settings, in contexts of peace and in contexts of conflict, as well as in humanitarian or crisis settings.”

— And just like in the alley, not everyone experiences violence at the same time, in the same way, or with the same frequency. The most marginalized women among us, women with disabilities, black women, trans women, refugees, and indigenous women, all have a disproportionate risk of experiencing violence, and will face greater barriers in accessing services and justice when they do. The stress and harm from the violence experienced can accumulate, and it can be compounded and exacerbated by the difficulty of navigating these barriers – from attitudes like victim-blaming in health care professionals to racism and discrimination in the justice system. We owe it to all women, and all people really, to design interventions to violence that are intersectional, and that center survivors in all their diversity.

The original Instagram post I shared in Oct 2020, depicting a red line behind Headingley Stadium where the alleyway is located

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign hosted by the United Nations that began 30 years ago. In 1991, twenty-five women activists came together from around the world to host the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. It continues to be coordinated each year by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and is used as an organizing strategy for individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women. It is kicked off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. “We were trying to link violence against women with human rights,” Charlotte Bunch, the Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, narrates “and someone said ‘the Latin American women have declared International Day Against Violence on 25 November – and we’ve linked that to Human Rights Day. That’s 16 Days.’” [2] This first campaign launched a petition that thousands of activists around the world signed, putting violence against women on the agenda for the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria.

This past weekend, Reclaim the Night Leeds organized its 44th annual march to end violence against women. This march, like the many other events occurring during these sixteen days, is still needed and unfortunately necessary. It provided a poignant message. Walking down Otley Road at 9 o’clock on a Saturday juxtaposed protesting violence against women with many of the situations and circumstances it directly happens in, from groups of people drunk and dressed up for Otley Runs, to the bars and clubs in Leeds and those all around the UK that have been dealing with assaults and spikings. And never have I participated in a march where passersby shouted and heckled us from the streets. One man told us to get a life and get a job. Another walked into the crowd and got in the face of one of the protestors behind me, asking, “What is it you’re even protesting for?” Men booed us from the streets, while women cheered.

The goal to end all the violence women experience can seem so huge and insurmountable to me sometimes – that patriarchy has been the playbook for so long. And to quote one of the organisers and speakers from the march, 44 years is too damn long that we’ve had to organize protests. 30 years is too damn long that we’ve had to organize global conversations about gender-based violence. However, the origin story of the 16 Days of Activism reminds me of how many times small collaborations of women have come together to enact great change. 25 women is not that many, especially when compared to the thousands of women who attended the Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2018, and yet they started a movement that we are still using years later to come together in collaboration for a better future. I am grateful that in my lifetime, I can see shifts in these conversations taking place and changes in people’s attitudes. I’m grateful to hear women’s voices still calling out protest chants, still fighting for justice, and I am so glad to finally hear men’s voices shouting alongside them.

Reclaim the Night’s 44th annual protest march in Leeds, November 2021

Rebecca Brunk, PhD candidate