There has been no shortage of sexual assault related discussion in the media this year, from the upskirting ban to an Irish teenager’s underwear being used in her rape trial. For many people, the public outcry surrounding these events shows progression in the way we are dealing with instances of sexual assault. However, others are still troubled by how frequent these offences still are. Among them are the people who marched down Northumberland Street on the twenty-fourth of November to protest violent crimes against women and the systems that allow them to continue.
Started in Leeds in 1977, Reclaim the Night is a movement that demands women’s rights to be safe in public spaces. Over forty years later, women still have a reason to be afraid of the dark; in light of the #MeToo movement and many other events, many people still consider Reclaim the Night to be as necessary and relevant today as it was in its formation.
After the sun had set at four o’clock, people of all genders met at Eldon Square to join “a global protest for women’s right to be free from sexual violence and abuse”. For many people, the motivation to march was to show solidarity towards victims; many marchers held up signs with slogans like “blame rapists not victims” and “the way I dress never means yes”. Several charities also turned up to show their support, including Newcastle’s Angelou Centre and Rape Crisis.
Lead by Bangshees, “a well-established female samba drumming band”, the lively group marched past the Christmas fair on Northumberland Street and stopped at Northumbria University’s Sutherland building where a number of women gave speeches about violence and sexual assault. The group of speakers included Newcastle MP Catherine McKinnell, who said that it while Reclaim the Night is a “celebration” that allows women to stand in solidarity, it is also “frustrating” that “we’ve still got an awful lot more to do”.
A key issue that was brought up by many speakers was the low rate of prosecution for crimes against women. Vera Baird, a Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, spoke about how prosecutions have “fallen off a cliff” in the last year.
She stated that referrals to the police for domestic violence have gone up by sixteen percent, and yet, the number of prosecutions have gone down. Additionally, she claimed that “eighty-five thousand women” in England and Wales are raped per year, and yet, despite there being a 31% increase in rape crimes reported, the number of suspects prosecuted has fallen by 23% percent in the last year.
“If you complain that your house has been burgled, even if there was no forced entry... they will take it as a real complaint, they will believe it and they will investigate it. It is only in rape and in sexual offence cases that you won’t be believed.”
Vera went on to discuss how sexual assault complaints are the only instances where your -past will be used as evidence, for example, your school reports, your medical records, your past sexual behaviours, as well as the clothes you were wearing and your state of intoxication at the time of the assault can all be used as evidence in court. While a recent example of this is the defence lawyer in Ireland who held up a victim’s underwear in court, Vera also gave an example of a case when a woman who had claimed to be raped was deemed a liar for forging her mother’s signature to get out of swimming at school.
Hearing about instances like this made the event difficult for many attendees. However, many people, such as Durham University student Hannah Priory, still believe that attending these events is important.
"As students, we should be more involved in campaigning. Our youth and our passion are crucial in pressuring the government, justice systems, and other institutions to deal with sexism better.
"We travelled from Durham University for the march, representing our college, Van Mildert Feminist Society, but more importantly, representing everyone worldwide who has experienced sexism. Together we can change the sexist society we live in."