Written by Amy Beecham
BBC Radio 5 Live’s Naga Munchetty tells Stylist why it’s so important to educate men about women’s safety, and what she learned from accompanying six 20-year-old students on a night out in Leeds.
The sad fact is that almost every person reading this will have had some kind of uncomfortable or unsafe encounter out in public. Be it a wolf-whistle, cat-call or something more serious, many of us have become used to adapting our behaviour, from where we go to what we wear, in order to minimise the risk of harassment.
This week, it was announced that sexual harassment in the street in England and Wales will lead to sentences of up to two years in prison, under plans backed by home secretary Suella Braverman. Deliberately walking closely behind someone as they walk home at night, making obscene or aggressive comments towards them, obstructing their path or driving slowly near them in public spaces will all count as criminal offences as part of the new rules.
But despite these important developments, street harassment continues to be a huge problem. Research published in 2020 by the children’s charity Plan International and the campaign group Our Streets Now found that a fifth (19%) of young women and girls aged between 14 and 21 had experienced being catcalled, followed, groped, flashed or upskirted, while 75% had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A survey for UN Women UK last year found that 86% of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed in public.
It was these statistics – and her own experiences of being “followed” and “intimidated” – that prompted presenter Naga Munchetty to dedicate a series of reports on her BBC Radio 5 Live mid-morning show to educating the public about street harassment.
“There was a moment in our daily meeting where we started exchanging our own experiences [of harassment] and they just resonated with so many of the women there,” she tells Stylist. “I’m 47 years old and I like to think that I know how to handle myself to a certain extent, but the vulnerability of women in particular is everywhere and it’s all the time. But it’s only when you say it out loud that you realise what you’re dealing with.”
Munchetty described how on a recent night out, she felt her enjoyment had been “tinged” by the fact she’d had to account for any possible situations that may have compromised her safety.
“I was on my own, I wasn’t going to be in a group. I was having to think about how to get home, whether to pack a pair of trainers in my bag, what I would wear, when I would text my partner the taxi number and the registration number so that even if he was asleep, if I wasn’t home by the morning he would at least have some information,” she says.
“Women do all this naturally, but I don’t think many men have to consider all these outcomes in this way, but they may be thinking about the safety of their partners, or their daughters, or their mothers, or their sisters.”
To find out more about the reality for young women in 2022, she accompanied a group of six 20-year old female students on a night out in Leeds, three of whom after experiences of sexual assault and drink spiking have changed how they dress and act in public.
“We were having open conversations and what really struck us was again just how aware they are of the issues and how it kind of consumes everything,” Munchetty explains. “But listening to their experiences taught me that it’s not about the clothes you wear, [sexual harassment] really is just endemic.”
For Munchetty, it shows that the way women and girls versus boys are educated is very different. “I remember being younger and my mum and dad saying: ‘You can’t go out like that, you’re asking for trouble,’” she says. “But now, what’s happening in terms of conversations in schools and friendship groups, are both boys and girls being taught that calling out and protecting their friends is a positive thing rather than being a goody-goody or too woke? Are they actually being taught enough or is it something that is being conveyed through a sort of osmosis?”
But despite the emotional subject matter, Munchetty says the response to the report has been overwhelming.“We’ve been covering women’s safety on our streets for some time now on my programme on 5 Live, and the response has been extraordinary – so many women getting in touch, but also so many men, most wanting to know what they can do differently to make us feel a bit safer, and we’ve had some good conversations around this, but some angry that we’re tarring all men with the same brush.
“We had a gentleman call who just said: ‘ What can I do? How can I help? How do I behave? If I’m walking down the road and I’m behind a woman, what do I do?’”
Overall, starting these important conversations that lead to action is the outcome Munchetty wants.
“Perhaps just making somebody stop and think about their actions and how that can impact on somebody else – that, for us, is making a difference.”
If you have experienced sexual harassment, visit Victim Support for help and advice.
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