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We reclaimed the night against female sexual violence

We reclaimed the night against female sexual violence
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In spite of a looming Hurricane Dorris, 2,500 people gathered outside the Owen’s Park Fallowfield campus in Manchester for the “Reclaim The March” night. The annual event is organised by The University Of Manchester Students’ Union as a demonstration against the violence which women continue to face.

Reclaim The Night is a series of nationwide events in York, Bristol, Newcastle, Brighton, and London, and dates back to Leeds in 1977. But the issue of violence against women is particularly pressing in Manchester.

In Fallowfield, the student hub of the city, there have been numerous attacks in recent months. In September of last year, The Tab compiled a “heat map” of sexual assaults of the previous 12 months, which highlighted the prevalence of attacks in the student areas of Fallowfield and Hulme. Within that time period, the number of attacks was as high as 22 per thousand residents. As many as a half of all female students have been raped or sexually assaults, and in 78% of cases the attacker was known to the victim.

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The marches are an articulation of outrage at these statistics and that fact that 70% of women feel unsafe to the point that they take precautions explicitly against sexual assault, such as “self-defense rings” and rape alarms.

One might argue that it is better to be safe than sorry, and that all people face a certain amount of danger on the streets. Yet as a male, I would never think twice about stomping around Fallowfield in the small hours, or walking up the Curry Mile at night, when it’s bustling and well lit and feels safe, at least to me. By contrast, many of my female peers are subjected to cat-calling and untoward attention which I have never experienced.

The Reclaim The Night March is an articulation of this discontent, about the insecurity women feel and the violence they face. In the wake of the recent global women’s marches against the newly instated Trump presidency, Reclaim The Night has taken on new significance as part of a wave of awareness about women’s issues.

Even though I’m in my final year at Manchester and consider myself a feminist, this was the first Reclaim the Night event which I attended. I assumed it would include a certain amount of glitter, chanting, and inventive puns on placards. I was right on all counts, and even witnessed a giant, fairy-lit vagina belting “2-4-6-8, end the violence, end the rape” into a megaphone.

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The march proceeded from the university’s main campus for student halls, onto Oxford Road, known locally as the Curry Mile. The shisha cafes and halogen signs lit up the march, which was divided into various blocks: self-identifying women, Muslim sisters, LGBT*, all genders. The chants of “whose streets? Our streets!” and “Hey! Ho! Sexual violence has to go!” drew local residents out as we locked a whole lane of traffic.

The Students’ Union hosted the end of the march, with a speech from Women’s Officer Jenni Smyth, as well as performances from the all-female big band Smudge, and members of home-grown Young Identity spoken word collective. It wasn’t only a protest, after all, but a celebration of female arts and expression.

One can wonder why we take part in such events. What’s the point? What does it change? Is it worth clogging up Rusholme and Victoria Park? Certainly, a lot of people question the effectiveness of these kinds of action.

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However, the point of such a march isn’t necessarily to achieve anything in that moment. It’s about voicing discontent and creating visibility for the continued epidemic of violence against women. It’s also about engaging people in the cause for the long-run. Being part of the throng inspires you to take further action, which is the whole point. Marching once a year won’t change much in itself.

So if you’re asking yourself, “but what next?”, then you’re asking the right question. The University of Manchester Students’ Union, and no doubt other unions too, has a women’s campaign which you can get involved with year round, not just once a year. The SU has also run other campaigns such as Time Of The Month, a fundraiser and donation scheme which aims to provide female sanitary products for homeless women.

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