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‘We need to prevent violence against women and girls and not lament it’: our reporters’ real-life stories of women’s safety

Recent events have put violence against women at the forefront in peoples’ minds. Belfast Telegraph’s female journalists share their experiences around personal safety

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Safety first: Most women walk home at night with keys in their hand in case of attack, or phone a friend to let them know where they are. Credit: Getty Images

Safety first: Most women walk home at night with keys in their hand in case of attack, or phone a friend to let them know where they are. Credit: Getty Images

Getty Images

A sign held during a vigil for teacher Ashling Murphy

A sign held during a vigil for teacher Ashling Murphy

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Safety first: Most women walk home at night with keys in their hand in case of attack, or phone a friend to let them know where they are. Credit: Getty Images

Entertainment correspondent Maureen Coleman

A couple of years ago, my Australian cousin and her partner visited Belfast for the first time.

Outside Robinson’s bar, a well-dressed man approached us. It was early evening, office workers were heading home, and the city centre was buzzing. Sharon’s partner Steve had been watching football elsewhere and had arranged to meet us at the entrance to the pub.

The man was smiling in our direction, so naturally I presumed it was Steve. He was talking but as he drew nearer, I realised he had a Belfast accent. This wasn’t Steve. Then he was in my space, face so close I could feel his hot breath and hear every word he was saying. In the most graphic of terms, he was telling what he would like to do to me if he got his hands on me. I stood rooted to the spot in pure shock as he spouted his filth. It was so sudden, so incongruous. It was a pleasant September evening, we were surrounded by people, and yet this random man was pouring forth his fantasies in such a relaxed, conversational tone, he could’ve been asking directions or chatting about the weather.

I recall glancing at my cousin and seeing her shocked expression. I felt humiliated, confused but mostly angry. This was Sharon’s introduction to Belfast, and I was furious; furious about other incidents where I’d felt intimated, afraid and hadn’t reacted. So, I lifted my fist and I whacked him as hard as I could in the face. He stumbled backwards, clutching his nose and said: “Well I wasn’t expecting that’. I bet he wasn’t.

The bar staff asked me if I wanted to report the man to the police, but I was worried I’d be arrested for assault. Seriously. And so, I let it go. I wondered why he had singled me out. Was it because I was wearing a skirt and high boots? Did my smile encourage him? As women, this is how we’ve been conditioned to think. No, it wasn’t my fault. The man was a sick freak.

Clutching sharp keys in my hand as I walk, asking a male colleague to accompany me, changing my route, texting friends to let them know I’ve arrived home safely and now punching a man in the face – these are all things I’ve done for my personal safety. This needs to change.

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Assistant News Editor Eimear McGovern

The times a man followed me on my way home no matter what turn I took to put them off, another time a man on a country road wouldn't accept my refusal of a lift, the time I saw another man put something in my drink - when I'm asked if I've ever felt my safety compromised as a woman, those are just a few of the incidents that spring to mind. Looking back now, those events make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up at the close calls I've experienced.

I make choices every day to try and keep myself safe and as a woman with a caring partner who wants to protect me, that affords me a certain degree of privilege for which I'm grateful.

Because of him, I would never stand in a train station alone in the dark or wait for a taxi in the street by myself but in light of recent events, I've thought about how no matter what choices I make, how much I'm minded or precautions I choose that I think are sensible, it will never be enough. All it takes are the choices of others for that thin veneer of safety and caution to evaporate.

Feature writer Catriona Doherty

In order to maintain my personal safety, usually I don’t walk alone after dark. It’s not something I have given any thought to, it’s just ‘normal’ I guess.

I used to walk along the Towpath by Cutters Wharf when I lived in the area. One evening I simply lost track of time and darkness fell quite quickly. I felt frightened and really annoyed at myself for getting into this position of being alone in an isolated area. I decided to run home and I came across two women up ahead. I immediately felt safe again and relieved, I fell into step right behind them. Once we reached the main road one of the girls glanced around and I mentioned why I walked so close to them, she smiled and said, “we knew why”.

When I was in my early twenties, I went on a year-long backpacking trip around the world with two female friends. I look back on that time now and I think we were so lucky that nothing untoward happened to any of us because we were so carefree and trusting.

Crime correspondent Allison Morris

In my large group of female friends there is not a single person who hasn’t been sexually harassed or assaulted at some stage in their lives, many of us more than once.

From an early age girls are accustomed to travelling in packs, ignoring cat calls from strangers in the street, fending off unwanted advances as pleasantly as possible in fear that outright rejection might provoke an attack.

My job often puts me in dangerous situations, no different to many of my male colleagues, but unlike them the abuse I get often has a sexual element to it.

While covering a disturbance around a contentious parade a man spent four hours following me around playing hard core porn on his phone and asking anyone who would listen did they think I looked like the woman in the video. That’s the tame version, the majority of abuse I’ve received is unprintable in a family newspaper.

I have taken pictures of taxi registrations and sent them to a friend before getting into the car, held a can of hairspray in my hand while walking along a dark street, hoping that I could blind a potential attacker long enough to make my getaway.

The fear I feel for myself is nothing compared to how I feel for my daughters and the world they are inheriting, we need this to stop, we need more than words and vigils every time it is too late for another woman.

We need to prevent violence against women and girls and not lament it.

Special correspondent Claire McNeilly

Several years ago, when I was just slightly older than Ashling, I lived in a beautiful area of Paris near Luxembourg Gardens. My work commute involved taking the train from the sixth arrondissement, then a bus to the office before reversing that journey to get home, often late in the day. In five years of waiting at deserted stations and empty bus stops, I never once felt my safety compromised.

Then, one autumn evening, I went to a friend’s apartment to use her washing machine as mine was broken. She lived a 15-minute walk away, in the fifth arrondissement. The route involved walking along the well-lit, busy Boulevard Saint-Michel, the Parisian thoroughfare eulogised in the classic Peter Sarstedt song.

That night, around 8.30pm, I was heading home with heavy sports bags full of clean laundry – one over each shoulder. I turned off the Boulevard onto the tree-lined avenue where I lived. That’s when I saw him. Jogging. He ran towards me, groped my chest – fast and rough - then he was gone. I didn’t scream. Just froze in terror. Then sprinted.

It took just 20 seconds to run home – and 20 years attempting, in vain, to forget about what happened.

News journalist Niamh Campbell

I’ve never felt unsafe, intimidated or even uncomfortable during situations in which I’ve been the only female in a room, surrounded by men, whether that be a workplace, a sports club or wherever.

However, there have been numerous instances where I’ve been the only woman isolated with just one other man, and my safety felt compromised.

There have been nights, particularly in my student years, when I’ve been at house parties or nightclubs, and men I know have been a bit too ‘grabby’ when they think others aren’t around or watching. There’s even been times when I’ve been alone in taxis and the male driver has made inappropriate comments - it’s why I always sit in the back seat now.

I remember one man, a work colleague of a friend’s, pushing me into the corner of a garden because I wouldn’t stay outside to ‘talk to him’. Often these occurrences are passed off as ‘drunken antics’ or ‘misunderstandings’, but in the golden age of social media, sometimes you don’t even feel safe in your own home, with some men repeatedly sending unsolicited sexual pictures and multiple messages of abuse if you choose to ignore them. These can’t be brushed off as ‘silly mistakes’ any longer.

Health correspondent Lisa Smyth

The simple answer is yes.

Every time I walk to my car in the dark, I have my keys in my hand, and if I’m going any distance, I make sure to ring my husband, so he knows exactly where I am, only hanging up once I’m locked safely in my car.

Like so many women, I’ve been the victim of a number of sexual assaults – the first happened when I was just a teenager.

I’m sure the perpetrator has forgotten the attack, but more than 20 years later I can still remember vividly the look on his face.

Another unpleasant incident happened in a council owned spa, while I was once forced to relinquish my gym membership after spending weeks being followed around by an unknown male.

I’ve been targeted by a leering pensioner on a train, a man twice my size threatened to assault me while out walking my dog, I’ve been targeted while simply minding my own business in a fast-food restaurant.

These are just a handful of examples of why I don’t always feel safe and it’s sad that I don’t always live my life the way I would want because of them.

Business editor Margaret Canning

I’ve always been vigilant when it comes to my personal safety, yet that’s mixed with frustration that I should have to feel this way just because of my gender.

Like most women, it’s been ingrained in me from a really young age that I shouldn’t go for a walk in the dark by myself and that the simple act of walking home alone from a night out is taking your life into your hands.

The shortage of taxis we’ve had in Belfast in the last six months or so means I’ll always have a watertight plan of how I’ll get home if I’m going out in the city centre.

There’s no room for spontaneity and usually it’s more practical just to drive although a major city like Belfast should have a night bus service.

I go for short runs a few times a week but usually stick to the main road near where I live. There are a few fairly secluded beauty spots close by, but I would never venture into them when I’m alone, even though I know attacks are rare.

I would love to be able to feel that nowhere is out of bounds when I’m out, but for peace of mind, I’ll always be cautious.

News journalist Amy Cochrane

 When asked if I have ever felt my safety compromised, the short answer is yes. Yes, I have awkwardly laughed when a man has made an inappropriate joke or comment towards me. Yes, I have kept my head down and crossed to the opposite side of the road when I felt I may be being followed. Yes, I have walked the entire way home with keys jammed between my fingers. Yes, I have carried a whistle. Yes, I have pretended to be on a fake phone call to avoid confrontation. Yes, this isn’t just me, I never felt that my experiences were anything special, I didn’t feel it was worth it to “rock the boat” as it were. But now, following the tragic death of Ashling Murphy, I feel partly responsible for not acting. For not rocking the boat. Because, if that boat were perhaps rocked and that threat reported, maybe it could have saved a life. Why should we walk with our head down and laugh awkwardly when made to feel uncomfortable? Why shouldn’t we be able to safely go for a run or anywhere for that matter? Regret, unfortunately, will not bring any victim of gender-based violence back to life, but what we can do is make a difference in their honour. To speak up, rock the boat, make a song a dance out of it, and most importantly, do it with our heads held high.


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