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Reclaim the Night

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Freya Berry is an English student at Trinity College, Cambridge. She writes on the recent 'Reclaim the Night' march in Cambridge:

Fear is a customary part of a woman - any woman's - life. It is rarely discussed, this quiet dread. But often, we are afraid: to walk home alone after a night out, to take the shortcut through the darkness of the park or alleyway, to wander deserted streets when it is late.
We women do not discuss the fear we have after dark, but it is there. I realise that we live in a first-world country. I know we're not in the Congo, gathering firewood in bandit-ridden forests, but rather simply returning from the local pub on a soggy Wednesday night. Yet 95% of women have felt fear on our streets - and it is not unreasonable to do so. 1 in 4 will be sexually attacked at some point in their lives.

Of course, if we get home safely from the bar, there's still the possibility of a vindictive partner. One third of all rapes are done by a boyfriend or husband. At least in England this is technically illegal, although conviction is difficult and rates are impossibly low; in Bangladesh, Egypt and China, to name just a few, it is still allowed. For these women, there can be no "sorry, I've got a headache" or simply, "actually, I'd rather spoon and watch The Bridge this evening." In these countries, if a man feels like forcing his partner into sex, then he can - she is, effectively, his property, because sex is the ultimate act of possession.

This Friday (11 May) brought the pro-women's march 'Reclaim the Night' to Cambridge. This long-established tradition involves walking through the streets as darkness falls. It aims to address the issues which mean that, absurdly, half of the population are anxious for half of the time. The procession ended up in King's Chapel, where there were some powerful speakers and an all-women's choir; participants lit candles for victims of sexual violence. It was a brave attempt to draw attention to this universal female fear, to recognise the unnaturalness of being afraid to walk through one's own city: 'rapists are not a natural hazard like floods', pointed out Rachel Childs of the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre. It is a poisonous man's unnaturalness that results in these kinds of actions.

An estimated 47,000 rapes occur every year in Britain, though only one in ten are believed to be reported . If you think you're feeling too happy one day, check out rape statistics - they'll put a dampener on your mood in no time. Our woeful conviction rate of 6% is, of course, a symptom of our courts' disinclination to prosecute those who force women into sex, as well as our victim-blaming society that implies a short skirt is screaming for a penis to be shoved up it.

I saw, at a recent anti-rape protest, a young woman in baggy trousers, long-sleeved jumper, dyed hair and a nose ring holding up the sign, "This is what I was wearing. Go on, tell me I was asking for it". Yet even if she had been dressed like Courtney Stodden in nought but platform shoes and a belt (honestly, look her up - she has to be seen to be believed), a woman's sartorial choices never 'invite' rape.

Yet 30% of the population believe exactly that, that a rape victim was 'asking for it' - presumably meaning she was drunk/flirtatious/in a skirt, or all three. "No woman is ever asking for it", Childs emphasised. On Question Time last week, the recent case of the convicted abusers of teenage girls from Rochdale was addressed - and soon the ancient victim-blaming rabbit was pulled from a very worn hat, by a vicar no less. "They feel as it is appropriate...to go out dressed as if they are looking for that issue to take place," he said.

Well I must say, there's nothing I want to do more to a young girl self-consciously parading herself around in a skirt than groom her for organised rape. These tired attempts to magic away addressing and blaming the perpetrators happen time and again. A piece of advice for the population at large: young girls wear short skirts. They do. I did, parading awkwardly around the shopping malls with my equally ill-attired friends. I see them now, everywhere, laughing and shopping and staggering around in heels, their skinny legs betraying how young they really are.

This is not a picture of asking for rape. This is an on-going discovery of one's sexuality, the equivalent of a teenage boy waking up and deciding suddenly that he wants to hoik his trousers down past his bottom so his Gap boxers, bought by his mother, are on show.

"We don't want to live in a country where we lock young girls up from seven o'clock," said Caroline Spelman, rightly, on the same programme. I recently returned from a night out by myself, a two-minute walk between club and doorstep, along the brightly-lit main street at half-past twelve (my stamina isn't up to much these days). "Look at her, with her legs out, wandering the streets on her own," I heard a disdainful voice say from a nearby cash machine. The implication was, of course, that rape was a logical endpoint, as natural and to be expected as stopping off at the late-night burger van that I had just, with a wilful effort, managed to avoid.

It is this moronic path of thought that needs to be prevented as much as rape in and of itself does. Because if a man thinks someone on the street is asking for it, then really there is every possibility he may try to act upon this perceived request.