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Can Sheffield’s parks be made safer for women?

Local campaign Our Bodies Our Streets is pushing Sheffield Council to improve poor lighting and make parks feel safer for women.

View from the top of Meersbrook Park
Gary Butterfield (Unsplash)

A recent investigation by UN Women UK found that 97% of women between the ages of 18-24 had experienced some form of sexual harassment. The same report showed that over 70% of women had experienced it in a public place. These damning statistics, alongside the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, have once again led many to question what can be done to create safer environments for women.

One such group is the Sheffield-based campaign Our Bodies Our Streets, who have dedicated themselves to tackling the issue of public sexual harassment.

“Our Bodies Our Streets is a collective group of mainly women who want to take different actions to make women feel safe in Sheffield, especially those who have been victims of sexual harassment. We’ve done about six different projects now and lighting up the parks is our most recent one,” said founder Evie Hairsine, who launched the campaign last July.

The project in question, Safer Parks After Dark, takes aim at poor lighting in many of Sheffield’s parks.

“We wanted people to be able to use parks. They're often inviting spaces because they are green and accessible, but from conversations with friends we realised that a lot of people aren't using the parks because there is really bad lighting in most of them,” Hairsine explained.

“That creates a barrier for equal opportunity, because certain people who are at higher risk of sexual assault, including women, people of colour, disabled people and LGBTQ+ people, just won’t use the parks after dark [...] It becomes such a scary place, you don’t even want to walk through it.”

Our Bodies Our Streets has petitioned Sheffield Council on the issue, with over 4,000 signatures at the time of writing. The petition, while initially launched in January this year, has taken on a second wind, with over 1,000 new signatures in the last week alone.

When asked about whether recent events would lead to better lighting being considered, Councillor Mary Lea, Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure at Sheffield Council, said: “We want to make sure our parks and green spaces are safe, accessible and user friendly and we continue to invest in improvements all the time.

“There are hundreds of parks in the city, some of which do have lighting, and the costs of any wider rollout would need careful consideration and consultation to establish why and where lights would be most needed or beneficial.”

The Council has committed £1.1 million to improving community safety across the city, Cllr Lea said.

“This funding will provide dedicated wardens in our neighbourhoods that will work with South Yorkshire Police, local people and partners to address issues on the ground. Interventions like this will help us make a real difference, so that people feel safe living, working, playing and getting about in Sheffield.”

Our Bodies Our Streets’ past projects include body positive exercise classes to help empower victims and a story map that curated over 100 experiences of street harassment in Sheffield.

“I think Sarah [Everard]’s story struck such a chord because it shows why women don’t need to change their behavior. Most of the things I’ve seen online say, ‘Sarah did everything we are told to do to prevent this from happening and it still happened’,” said Hairsine.

“It shows that it’s men who need to change their behaviour.”

While work on practical measures such as increased lighting is important to women and could bring meaningful change, work must also be done by men to counter the patriarchal attitudes that have allowed harassment to become so prevalent and so unchecked.

Towards this aim, Our Bodies Our Streets are planning bystander intervention and allyship training for men to create dialogue around sexual violence, misogyny and challenging their friends.

The Council stated that they are “happy to meet with the groups who have concerns about this to discuss the best ways of achieving safer outcomes that fit into our citywide commitment.”

The correcting of oversights that leave spaces freely accessible to men while existentially terrifying to women is just one part of a wider conversation about how we move forward - but it is work that absolutely needs to be done.

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