The founders of Reclaim These Streets, SafeUp and Path Community reflect on a year that should have changed everything.
https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk-By Rachel Moss
Family Handout/CPS via PA Media
Sarah Everard’s story was called “a watershed moment” for women’s safety, but was it wasted?
Ludovica Orlando was sitting alone in her home in Clapham, south London, when she first heard details of Sarah Everard’s disappearance.
The 29-year-old Italian expat instantly recognised the route that Sarah was said to have walked home, when she left a friend’s house on March 3, 2021.
On nearby streets, posters appealing for information soon appeared, and it wasn’t long before the police came knocking on doors in the area, advising women to stay home.
Orlando and her friends, Jamie Klingler and Anna Birley, started texting about the horror and injustice of it all. “We were just like, ‘this is not okay, why do we need to change our behaviour yet again,’” she recalls.
When Everard’s death was confirmed – and a police officer was charged with her murder – the trio decided to organise a vigil on Clapham Common, close to where she had last been seen.
They named their event, Reclaim These Streets, in a nod to the Reclaim the Night movement that began in Leeds in the 1970s (in response to the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders). But they had no idea how quickly it would gain momentum.
The vigil, as many will remember, was officially banned by the High Court on lockdown grounds. Yet thousands of defiant women surrounded the Clapham Common bandstand on March 13, before their show of solidarity was met with police brutality.
In the year since, the Reclaim founders have been thrust into the spotlight, consulting with MPs, the police and news reporters on the subject of women’s safety. Several women’s safety apps and helplines have also launched, from SafeUp and Strut Safe to the controversial Path Community.
One year on, HuffPost UK spoke to the women behind these initiatives.
Orlando describes the weeks following Everard’s murder as a “watershed moment”, with women sharing their own experiences of street harassment and abuse in a way that we hadn’t seen since #MeToo.
The names of other murdered women – including sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy – trended on social media in turn, and sparked vigils of their own. Yet reflecting on the past 12 months, Orlando says her overriding emotion is “frustration”.
“There were funds promised, everyone was saying ‘enough is enough, never again’. All of this stuff went viral on social media, which was great as we talked about it. But it’s been a year and nothing has been done to demonstrably make women’s lives any safer,” she says.
Instead of waiting for meaningful government intervention, start-ups and grassroots campaigners have taken matters into their own hands.
In Tel Aviv, Neta Schreiber saw a sudden spike in women downloading her app, SafeUp, which she developed in 2019 after a friend was attacked by two men. The app connects women who feel unsafe on their journey with a trained volunteer who assists via telephone, video, or by physically accompanying them.
“It was a crazy few days for us,” she says of the days after Sarah Everard’s disappearance. “We weren’t ready, from an operations side, to get so many new users – and not just in the UK. I guess people were looking for a solution.”
Schreiber followed Everard’s case from Israel. Why does she think it resonated with women globally?
“I think that she was just a really regular woman that you can see in a movie or something and connect with,” she says. “And it happened in London, so even if you’re not from the UK, you might have been there. And it was a cop. It’s the worst case that you can imagine, because this is the person who is supposed to make sure you are safe.”
The app originally launched in Israel, but Schreiber and her team worked quickly to set up a London version, ready by January 2022, in response to demand.
Closer to home, Alice Jackson, a 22-year-old recent graduate, and Rachel Chung, a 28-year-old PhD student, launched Strut Safe in Edinburgh. The service connects women who feel vulnerable with volunteers, who either escort them home or offer reassurance over the phone.
The renewed focus on violence against women and girls is bittersweet for campaigners like Tashmia Owen, who’s been writing on the topic for years.
Like others, she noted how the death of Everard – a white woman – received more media attention than others.
“It is an indictment on the world we live in, the lives of some women are valued more than others. It is incredibly painful and frustrating, but not a surprise to many of us,” says the 43-year-old, from London.
“While racism and misogyny festers in our systems Black and brown women will not be treated as equal to their white counterparts. We see this repeatedly with every woman raped or murdered, it is not a surprise, but hurts each and every time.”
The majority (71%) of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, according to a 2021 report by UN Women. This number rises to 86% among 18- to 24-year-olds. Separate research highlights how women of colour are most likely to be victims of crime.
Mina Smallman, the mother of Bibaa and Nicole, has spoken about the racial profiling of her daughters by police, and how their case was ignored for too long by the media. She’s since worked with Reclaim These Streets, but it’s important to highlight that this women-led movement still isn’t representative of all women – and perhaps not the women most at-risk.
According to the campaigners, there have been plenty of “missed opportunities” to improve women’s safety in the past year.
The Home Office recently said it would not support attempts by campaigners to make misogyny a hate crime (this will now go to a vote).
Meanwhile, the British Transport Police’s women’s safety initiative is focused on encouraging women to report crime, which they may be unlikely to do, considering the recent review that uncovered racism and misogyny within the police (that led to the resignation of Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick).
It’s taken the Home Office an entire year to launch its Enough campaign, designed to challenge perpetrators of street harassment, unwanted touching and coercive control. But it remains to be seen whether the rather stilted TV ads will actually make an impact.
Nor are grassroots initiatives without their critics. Path Community, an app that provides those walking home with a monitored route on their phone, was panned by much of the press when it launched in December 2021 for placing women under “surveillance”.
The app works by tracking a user’s movements, and if they stray more than 40 metres from the designated route, or stop for more than three minutes, the application asks them if they are okay. If they do not reply, the user’s chosen ‘guardians’ – such as friends and family – are sent a notification. Users can also share information about certain routes, such as whether a road is dimly lit or feels unsafe.
“I know that’s a bit dystopian, you know, Handmaid’s Tale ‘under his eye’ stuff, but I think it’s a fresh response, and we need to do something,” says Nic Keaney, who has worked as an advisor on the app from the start.
“We keep talking about women’s safety and the issues of society and misogyny, but attitudes are going to change over years. They’re not going to change right now.”
News reports dubbed Path “the Home Office app”, because minister Rachel Maclean expressed support of it during an interview. Keaney believes this is where much of the criticism stemmed from, when in reality, the Home Office has provided no developmental support or funding.
“They got everyone’s hackles up, which I can totally understand, because they even got mine up,” she says. “I was sort of like: ‘Why the hell are they even commenting on this?’”
Another criticism from reporters was that the app could potentially be exploited by stalkers, but Keaney insists this isn’t the case, because women only share their route with trusted contacts.
“Honestly, the criticisms were infuriating, because the reality is, a lot of the people criticising it hadn’t even downloaded it to see it,” she says. “We can see on the back end who has downloaded it.”
Keaney acknowledges that this new wave of women’s safety apps may not be perfect, but says they’re a way of firefighting the problem, until somebody offers a long term solution.
“It’s so easy to criticise, but if we keep criticising everyone’s efforts to do something good, we’re not going to be in any better position, we’re still going to have women being taken off the streets and raped and hurt and injured,” she says.
The burden on women
Whether you like these safety apps or not, one thing is clear: the burden to keep women safe still lays heavily on women’s shoulders
A lot of these women are running these grassroots initiatives alongside other full-time work or care responsibilities. When she’s not answering emails, organising vigils and conducting interviews on behalf of Reclaim, Orlando is holding down a job at a public affairs agency. Keaney works in social media, while Schreiber is a new mum-of-two who’s opted to work through her maternity leave. The emotional burden should not be overlooked.
“It’s been a huge privilege to actually have a platform, but it’s also been a massive responsibility,” says Orlando.
Schreiber adds: “At that start, working in this area was really hard. But you get stronger and used to hearing these tough stories.”
Many of the women working in this space feel driven to do so because of personal experiences of rape, assault or harassment – which makes monitoring the mental health burden of campaigning even more important.
Tashmia Owen spoke at the first Shameless Festival (an event exploring attitudes towards sexual violence) last year and says campaigners have to weigh up their desire to fight for change with managing their mental health.
“It is a difficult balance and it took me a while to understand how it impacted me, and how to look after myself better,” she says. “I can be left very tired emotionally and physically from the effort it all takes to lay everything bare in front of so many strangers.
“However when people come up to me at an event, in another space or send me mail to tell me they felt seen, or I had helped them process something they were having difficulties with, I am reminded why I do it.”
It’s something that resonates with Keaney. “There’s this idea that if I don’t say something, it will happen to someone else,” she says. “And I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that someone else will experience what that I experienced, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
What needs to change now
In response to the outpouring following Sarah Everard’s murder, the government pledged to spend £5m on the so-called Safety of Women at Night Fund, and another £25m on the Safer Streets Fund. But campaigners want to see evidence of where this money is being used and how much it has (or hasn’t) improved women’s lives.
We have a long way to go in dismantling rape culture, says Owen.
“There is a superficial acknowledgement, but people still behave as though it is a shadowy figure in the bushes who is the perpetrator,” she says. “Until we fully address the fact that we personally know several people who would have raped someone, and start holding people to account it will continue to be the crime that is enabled daily.”
For Orlando, the year can be summarised in two emotions: frustration and overwhelm.
“When I think about Reclaim, it’s always going to be bittersweet,” she says. “There’s been these amazing opportunities to actually bring women’s safety to the forefront of discourse, but at what price? All of this came about because we lost women, women that had their lives in front of them. I would give everything back if we could have these women back.”