Reclaim the Night

“Whose Streets?” 

“Our Streets!” 

“Whose Streets?” 

“Our Streets!”

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Photo: Mairead McKenzie-McHarg

These chants could be heard ringing through out the night on Brunswick’s Sydney road on the 18th of October. Over two thousand women, men and children were there for the annual Reclaim The Night march, protesting against gendered harassment and violence towards women. For women and women identifiers the event has come quite a way since it first began 35 years ago.

But after all that time what has changed and what has stayed the same?

After 35 years of walking in hopes of reclaiming the night from fear of attacks, what has been achieved?

The march started in 1979 in Melbourne at the State Library and has seen many women and men walk in hope of a better future for women. A future where they can walk the streets at night without the fear that the worst will happen in the cover of darkness.

The main aim of raising awareness about violence against women is still as strong as ever, however throughout it’s many years other issues have been raised and brought to the public’s attention. Issues such as contraception and abortion laws in the 1970’s and now today, the rights of Victorian sex workers.

Fitzroy resident Annie Russell was at the first march at the State Library all those years ago. She says the event began in the 1970’s as something that was supported by the women’s movement.

“We hadn’t ever had a period in history before where so many people together became involved. They were out there unlike their mothers, they wanted to say to people ‘uh hang on it’s not always safe here’” Russell says.

Having attended the rally over the years Annie believes the tragic death of Jill Meagher has had the greatest affect on the event. Saying the death gave the issue context and a sense of reality. Jill was a normal woman walking a short distance home after a couple of drinks, a situation a lot of Melbourne women can relate to.

In commemoration of Meagher’s death, the event moved to Brunswick’s Sydney Road in 2012. Changing the location to the same street Jill was walking home on when she was attacked allows people to see that this is where people live and this is where things like this can happen, says Russell.

Although the change to Sydney Road is seen by Russell, who has a background in working with the disabled, as an issue for disabled women to get to Brunswick to attend the event. Even if only one suburb out from the CBD, the distance and transportation may cause issues to event goers.

Finding the balance between including men in such an event, where women may be traumatised from past experiences, is something that was combated by the organisers by asking the men to walk in a second group.

Male 21 year old student Rhyss Wyllie attended the event and walked in the second group which he said was completely fine. “I think any controversy about men not being allowed in the first group is just men making the event about them, when it should be about women and especially victims of misogyny.”

Russell believes the inclusion of men is essential, “It’s important men are involved in any kind of issue, because their own gender are the perpetrators and that must be horrific for them.”

Lindsey Green a 21 year old student attended her first Reclaim The Night this year, but admitted she was a little worried the event may be a little “man hating” from posts on their Facebook page.“If anything is going to change in terms of violence against women and if feminism wants to be taken seriously as a movement by all people then it needs to include men and to be anti-men only gives people more reason to distance themselves from feminism.”

“I was very pleasantly surprised at the march however of how inclusive the event was. There were a large number of men at the event and … most of the speeches acknowledged that violence happens to people of all genders, races, sexualities.”

The murder of St Kilda sex worker Tracy Connelly, who was stabbed to death in her van in 2013, was brought up by some of the speakers on the night. Speaking of the crowds collective outrage that any woman, no matter the profession could be treated in such a violent way.

“Sex workers used to not be well regarded,” says Russell “but these women don’t have to be violated by their clients, by the police, just because they choose to be a sex worker. These are women, and these women need support.”

Green says she sometimes struggles with what it means to be a feminist, “I find that events such as these, or Slut Walk or even Tracy Connelly’s memorial sort of re-energise and make me more focussed and committed to my beliefs. I feel a lot of support from the feminist community and it sort of makes me feel as if I belong to it, rather than just an outsider looking in.”

Now in it’s 35th year of running Reclaim the Night in Melbourne, which first started in Belgium in 1976, it’s clear there is still a long way to go until all women can feel safe walking home at night.

“I think if anything is going to change in regards to violence against anyone it needs to come from things like government, courts and police but I definitely think events like this do a lot to change attitudes,” says Green.

Natalie Pestana, spokeswoman for the Melbourne event said that “Tonight the Melbourne community loudly declared that they want a society free from violence and harassment and will continue to make gender inequality and violence against women and children an election priority.”

Moving forward, Russell says “I think it’s essential. If every woman in Melbourne was on that street, how powerful would that be? That would be two million people, I think that changes worlds.”

Words – Mairead McKenzie-McHarg

Video – Mairead McKenzie-McHarg

Music – Sarah Pitcher – Lament

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