All women have a right to feel safe in their community, but even in the ACT women can experience violence, sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces, at bars and clubs, at educational campuses and other institutions, in car parks, in bus interchanges and at public events. While the physical environment does not cause violence against women, the fear of crime or violence is very important to women’s safety and use of public spaces.
The experience of fear is not gender neutral; women report feeling more afraid in public places than men, particularly in relation to crime. Despite the fact that the evidence shows that women are more likely to experience physical violence in their home by a current and/or previous partner, fear of attack from a stranger in public spaces is a lived reality for many women. As a result, men and women use public spaces differently and have different concerns about how public spaces meet their needs and what makes them feel safe in public spaces.
WCHM’s own research has shown that in Canberra, women’s sense of safety and security in public spaces often depends on their own personal experience of a place, or is based on the experiences of other women. Perceptions of personal safety, as well as of actual safety, influence the extent to which they use ACT’s public places and spaces—which can prevent women from fully participating in the community. Opportunities for crime can make women feel most unsafe, and public places where women feel fear have been found to have features which are also found in public places where actual crimes have occurred.
For example fear about safety plays a part in the way older ACT women use public space, whether they use it at all, and if so, when they use it and which locations they use. You can read WCHM’s report Where do older women feel unsafe and why? here:
What is a public space?
A public space is defined as a set public place, facility, event or public transport that is open to the general public, or is used by the general public whether or not payment of money is necessary to use the facilities, area or transport. It does not include schools. Some examples of public spaces in the ACT and surrounding regions include public libraries, the ACT legislative assembly area, community and health centres, bus stops and interchanges, museums, galleries, Lake Burley Griffin, bike paths, local shopping centres, major public car parks, taxi ranks, public festivals and events, parks and public toilets.
Women are often the most frequent users of public spaces and facilities in the ACT such as public transport, carparks, shopping centres, public toilets, parks etc.
Safety and the design of public spaces
Perceptions of safety and feelings of insecurity in public spaces do not stem from crime and violence alone. Women’s fear for their safety may be heightened by particular features of public spaces that are associated with public perceptions of being unsafe places, and which may in themselves generate crime and anti-social behaviour. So the design of public spaces, such as walking and cycling paths, car parks, entrances and exits to public buildings, and public transport can contribute to reducing crime and anti-social behaviours in those places, improving their safety and perceptions of safety, and encouraging women to use them.
Consulting with women about safety in public spaces
The best way to ensure that spaces are safe for women is to consult with women and include women themselves since women are the best source of information about their safety concerns. However, women can find it difficult to participate in public planning and design discussions for a variety of reasons.
Women’s safety assessments were seen as an effective way to identify how safe a space is for women and how to go about making changes to improve the safety of a location. You can read WCHM’s report on the Background to women’s safety audits/assessments here:
What is a women’s safety assessment?
Safety assessments specifically focus on the prevention of sexual harassment and all forms of assault by increasing women’s safety in public places and at public events. In the context of a Women’s Safety Assessment in the ACT, ‘safety’ refers to personal safety—specifically, how safe a woman is and how safe they feel in any given environment.
A women’s safety assessment is a process that involves women walking through a physical environment, evaluating how safe it feels, identifying ways to make the space safer, and using that feedback to highlight the need for those changes. It may involve assessment of a site before an event or self-assessment by attendees during an event, or the assessment of public areas/spaces or buildings and facilities.
They aim to improve the safety of women in the ACT by including women and girls in the evaluation of public events, facilities and spaces. One of the guiding principles of the women’s safety audit is that women are the experts about their own sense of safety and have knowledge about the spaces that they use.
Safety assessments have been used by WCHM to identify public places in the ACT where women feel unsafe, and to understand the problems and what elements contributed to their safety concerns. If these characteristics are not removed, improved or addressed, women will continue to feel unsafe and take their own action to stay safe, which mostly means avoiding these places. It is hoped that by providing feedback from the assessments to ACT Government, the future design of urban spaces, facilities and public events in the ACT can be influenced.
Get involved in a women’s safety assessment
Are there places in your community where you feel concerned for your safety? What is it about these places that causes you concern? What would make you feel safer in your community? What needs to happen to bring these changes about?
Undertaking a safety assessment can be very valuable as it can help you explore and understand public places in your local area and to identify particular problem spots. There are three ways to get involved.
Complete your own independent safety assessment
If you would like to complete a safety assessment independently, we have developed three questionnaires to guide you. Using these questionnaires can help you to identify the issues that impact on your perceptions of safety in order to provide feedback on how to improve safety for women in the ACT. The three questionnaires cover:
This questionnaire is designed to help you assess the safety of a public event in the ACT. Using these questions as a basis will enable you to consider safety issues and provide feedback about the safety of the event for women and to influence future events.
Public Buildings, facilities and infrastructure - internal
This questionnaire is designed to help you assess the safety of the internal design of a public building, facility or institution, for example, community centres, health care facilities, and other public buildings. Using these questions as a basis will enable you to consider safety issues and provide feedback about the safety of ACT public buildings and facilities/infrastructure.
Public Buildings, facilities and infrastructure - external
This questionnaire is designed to help you assess the safety of public spaces such as public car parks, parks, bus interchanges or education campuses, as well as the entrances to public buildings. Using these a as a basis will enable you to consider safety issues in external ACT public spaces and provide feedback about the safety of ACT public spaces.
Provide feedback to ACT Government
You can provide feedback direct to ACT Government about your concerns about women’s safety in public spaces in the ACT or contribute to the design or redesign of areas of Canberra.
Participate in a group safety assessment led by WCHM
When required throughout the year, WCHM may use a group of women volunteers to participate in WCHM led safety assessments at ACT public events, in public facilities and in other public spaces. Training is provided to support you on how to identify safety issues in a range of settings. To find out more or to register to participate in a group safety assessment by contacting WCHM at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 6290 2166.