By Khiara Elliott
Young Victorian women, Plan International Australia and CrowdSpot have come together to create a digital campaign to help women feel safer in our streets.
Known as Free to Be, the project comprises an interactive map showing all the “happy” and “sad” spots of the CBD and greater Melbourne.
Plan International has implemented several campaigns around the world that work towards equality and safer cities for girls.
Women aged 15 to 19 were invited to mark locations on a map as either “happy”, where they have had good experiences or “sad”, where they have experienced feeling unsafe or unwelcome.
The Free To Be idea came about after research showed that one in four young women felt unsafe when using public transport alone and one in three felt unsafe after dark in the city.
“This was so startling to me,” said deputy CEO of Plan International Susanne Legena.
“We asked the girls, you know, ‘What are you doing then?’ and they all said they just go straight home after uni or the gym. It was shocking,” Ms Legena said.
Experiences currently mapped out in the CBD are a mix of “happy” and “sad” spots.
One participant named Cass mapped Flinders Street Station as a sad spot during the night.
“Flinders Street Station and along Elizabeth St feels very dangerous at night, with little presence of security and PSO patrols. Many people are affected by drugs and alcohol and I don’t feel safe leaving work late,” she wrote.
Other areas of the city received a more positive response, with the RMIT campus being mapped as a happy spot, during any time of the day.
“RMIT campus security will escort you to a tram stop and wait with you if you don’t feel safe. Not that you need them. It’s a relaxed environment where you can relax and learn,” wrote user Anthea.
The Free to Be project involves girls of all backgrounds. One spokesperson Idil is a young Muslim refugee. Mill O’Sullivan is a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) community.
“The more I can do to advocate for their safety and the safety of young people who experience social isolation or transphobia or homophobia or any type of violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the better,” she said.
Ms O’Sullivan said her sexual orientation had triggered a lot of harassment whilst spending time in the city.
“Particularly as a young, queer person you can get a lot of street harassment. Especially when there’s those bigger, dominant male groups coming into the city for club culture. It can be pretty dangerous,” she said.
Ms O’Sullivan aims to influence more queer-friendly spaces within the CBD, as well as to create visibility for her community.
“A lot of young, queer voices get drowned out in the conversation and in planning. I think structural development, policy development and cultural development has always just been led by straight white dudes,” she said
Sherry-Rose Bih-Watts is 20-years-old and is another ambassador for the Free to Be project. Originally born in Cameroon, Central Africa, Ms Bih-Watts moved to Melbourne when she was six.
Like Ms O’Sullivan, her experiences in the CBD are far more positive during the day.
“I think that’s a general finding for most young women and those who commute into the city. I feel safer in the city during the day, because I’m usually with friends or a large group of people,” she said.
“Everyday, sexism does exist and women are subjected to assaults and inappropriate language all the time. It affects the way that you feel in a space. It affects whether or not you feel you have a right to a space.”
“It affects whether or not you even want to access those spaces. It affects whether or not you want to use public transport. I completely avoid using public transport at night.”
The next phase of the project is to analyse the data over two months. From there it will be presented to bodies such as the City of Melbourne, Yarra Trams, Victoria Police and Public Transport Victoria.
“This map is designed for young women and girls to have a say,” Ms Legena said.
“Whether those experiences are big, small, positive or negative, we will listen to those stories and these girls will help us to make the world’s most liveable city even more welcoming and secure for girls.”