Despite being one of the most developed countries in the world, Australia isn’t necessarily a safe place for women.
According to data collected by Plan International, one in three young women in Melbourne don’t feel safe after dark, and one in four would not use public transport on their own after dark.
Plan International developed a crowdsourced interactive map that they’ve rolled out in Melbourne, Sydney, Lima, Delhi, Madrid and Kampala — a project that has had an overwhelming response, and has yielded some alarming data. One of the women who helped design Free To Be, Edie Bannerman, will be delivering a plenary at Locate19 in April, and she sat down for this Q&A featured in Position magazine’s Feb/Mar issue.
Position: Edie, welcome. Could you sum up the Free To Be project’s methodology and aims, and how they fit in with Plan International’s strategic objectives as an organisation?
EB: Thanks for speaking with me today. Plan International is a not-for-profit organisation working to advance the rights of children around the world – with a particular focus on young women and girls. And as any young woman will tell you, no matter where you are in the world, trying to move through city spaces can be a scary and dangerous prospect. So we thought, ‘how can we document these experiences, how can we bring these stories of young women into the light when they are so often forgotten, and ultimately how can we change how women experience their cities?’ Out of those questions, Free To Be was born, a space where we allowed young women to share their stories of sexual violence and harassment on their streets in a safe, anonymous way.
Position: At face value, the results are arresting. The extent to which participating girls and women have reported feeling unsafe or being harassed versus positive reports is shocking — and this impression is deepened when reading through the reports. What conclusions have you been able to draw from the data?
EB: There are a few things that came through in the Unsafe in the City report that were alarming for us. The first is that no matter which city you are in, women are not safe to move freely, especially at night. We have created this illusion that because we live in Australia that somehow you will be treated with more respect as a woman – but of course we know now this this isn’t true. What we also found was that overwhelmingly young women felt harassment happened so often to them that they are simply ‘used to it’, and when they did report to authorities they felt that no action was taken. What this tells us is that we have a real cultural problem here – where women and girls are seen as fundamentally of less value, that they are less deserving of a life without fear. Free To Be has shown us that we can’t wait any longer for change – because every moment we let this continue we allow these girls, who are victims of sexual violence and threats, to slip through the cracks as if they don’t matter. But they do matter – and we have to stand with them.
Position: My understanding is that this data has been contextualised and made available to planning departments, public transport authorities, local councils and police. Could you elaborate on this process — what is the intended outcome, and have you had a positive response to date? Have there been any notable firm commitments?
EB: The map was open for around six weeks, during which time we collected enough data to be able to understand what the female experience of these cities was. All this data was analysed by the XYX Lab at Monash University and collated in the Unsafe in the City report that was released on International Day of the Girl in 2018. Since this release we have secured strong partnerships with police and public transport providers across two states now. In fact in Melbourne, Metro Trains are developing new reporting mechanisms and looking into scaling up their training on gender sensitivity.
We hope that by making this data widely available to public and corporate bodies that we can start to move towards policies that reflect a gender equal city.
Position: Could you outline the rationale for a map-based solution for this project — was that intrinsically bound to the intended outcome, or were other data collection and visualisation methodologies considered?
EB: What we really wanted to do with Free To Be was to show the world what a young woman’s experience of the city is — what it looks like through her eyes. To do this we needed a visual mode, something interactive and accessible. The crowdsourced map, developed by CrowdSpot, meant that users could see and understand their city in a whole new way. It also meant we could see hotspots for positive and negative experiences — so we could analyse what makes a space safe or unsafe. Now we know exactly where we are going wrong, why that space is unsafe — and how to fix it. So for us, a map-based solution was the only way for Free To Be to make an impact.
Position: Could you describe any unexpected or particularly thorny challenges that you overcame in the planning and implementation of this project, if there were any?
EB: Perhaps the biggest challenge was to design a tool that actually empowered girls – not one that created or exacerbated feelings of fear. But in truth the only way to make that happen was to get the input of young women themselves. So Plan International put together a team called the Youth Activist Series, a group of young women who worked on Free To Be from design right through to implementation. Free To Be was ultimately a project by young women for young women, and taught us perhaps the biggest lesson of all — we must include the voices of girls in decision making in order to see change.
Position: You’ll be presenting at the upcoming Locate19 conference in Melbourne. Are there any outcomes that you hope to achieve in your presentation and attendance at the event? Do you intend to have any future projects on the boil that incorporate location-based technologies or data?
EB: Violence against women is a problem that impacts every woman in our community in some way, and therefore it’s going to take our entire community to overcome it. We must continue to honour the courage of the women who have spoken out through Free To Be, and strive to create a city where they can exist free from fear. Every individual, company and organisation has a role to play in making gender equality a reality — and we hope to inspire them to join us in creating real change for girls and women, in whatever capacity that may be.
Edie Bannerman will give a plenary at Locate19, April 8-10 at the Melbourne Convention Centre.
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