Kiara Mackay, a 21-year-old student, should be spending her final year of university going out with friends and enjoying Birmingham’s night life. But the trainee teacher says she no longer goes to bars and clubs with female friends because of persistent harassment.
As well as catcalling, unsolicited sexual comments and groping, Kiara says she has also witnessed her friend’s drink being spiked. She doesn’t believe the city is a safe space for a woman and has decided she’d rather stay home.
“It makes me so uncomfortable and I feel like I can’t kick back and relax,” she says. “My experiences of walking through Birmingham during the day time are bad enough, I dread to think how bad it can be at night.”
The problem of harassment isn’t confined to Birmingham – it’s reflective of what’s happening in the rest of the country. In a 2017 YouGov poll of women across Britain, almost a quarter (24%) said they had experienced sexual harassment in a public place. This figure increased to more than half (52%) of 18-24-year-old women, who most commonly experienced harassment on the street and in pubs, clubs and bars.
Kiara had been growing increasingly uncomfortable during evenings at bars and clubs, but it was an incident that occurred during the morning commuter rush that put her off nights out for good.
A man followed her as she walked to a morning lecture, repeatedly trying to get her attention and making comments about her appearance. “All of a sudden he grabbed my shoulder, turned me around and took my headphone out of my ear, then said ‘Hey mummy, how are you doing?’” Kiara explains.
“I was in shock, you think you’re going to turn around and smack someone for doing something like that, but I was frozen. It’s frightening to think walking down the street any time of day, someone can grab you and make you feel so uncomfortable in your skin.”
Like Kiara, Emily Crick, 22, who lives near the city’s centre, has had to deal with men being “touchy-feely” in clubs. However, she says it’s walking through the city’s streets at night she finds most intimidating.
“The other day I was wearing a skirt and I was going to the city centre car park on my own, I felt like I had to be on the phone to someone, just in case I needed them,” she explains.
Lily Timiny-Shepherd, who lives in the Jewellery Quarter, also uses this tactic for a sense of reassurance. “I’ve normally got my headphones in tucked under my top with my phone in my pocket, so no one can see I’ve got a phone on me,” she explains.
The 19-year-old says increasing amounts of homelessness and prevalence of the drug Spice makes the city feel more dangerous than it used to be. She works in a central restaurant and was too scared to do the closing shift for several months last year after two men demanded she hand over her phone while she was leaving.
“I just screamed as hard as I could - I scared them more than I think I actually scared myself,” she says. “Two other blokes came running over and the men ran off. It was horrible though.”
Kat Goulder-Davies, who lives in the suburb of Bournville, says evening joggers - particularly women - are also being targeted for phone thefts where she trains in Cannon Hill Park. “As a runner I feel like I don’t quite know where to go anymore. I feel like I almost have to arrange my run so that it’s in the day time, and that doesn’t feel fair,” she says.
Although the 43-year-old feels relatively safe walking in the busy city centre during the light summer evenings, she says in the winter, it’s another story. But her friend, Megan Caine, 51, also from Bournville, says public transport isn’t much better.
“What scares me is being on the bus when there’s very few people on it, because you’re in an enclosed space,” she says.
Kat adds: “You feel like you have to sit in a strategic position, I tend to go downstairs and sit right at the back if I can, just so I can see what everybody else is doing.”
Lily, Kat, and Megan Caine, all say they opt for taxis when they can afford them – Lily says she’s felt safer since Uber came to the city, making taxis more affordable.
Like any city, Birmingham has areas that feel safer than others. Megan wouldn’t hesitate to go into any central bar or pub, while Kat says she has always felt welcome in the gay village. “People aren’t there to get tanked up and fight,” she says.
Friends Hayley Timmis, 32, and Hannah Mole, 28, also feel more than happy to go for a drink locally after they finish work in the Bullring shopping centre and say most of the surrounding area feels safe for women.
“In the city when the lights are bright and there’s always people around it’s fine, but in Digbeth [an area in central Birmingham] with all the alleyways, it’s probably not,” Hannah says.
Emily would like to see some areas of the city better lit to make them feel safer, while Kat would like to see more single-sex groups – such as the local women’s running club that goes out some evenings – so women can reclaim the city at night and feel empowered.
But for Kiara, the key to making all cities feel safer for women is educating younger generations on the topic of consent. “It’s very sad that for your own safety you have to tar people with the same brush. Some people are very honest and wouldn’t lay a hand on you without your consent, but some people don’t understand the concept,” she says.
“If we can get in there quickly in schools and universities and educate young men and women about consent, it could make a difference.”
HuffPostListens – Birmingham
HuffPost wants to get out of the media bubble and tell the real story of the UK. For one week in July we relocated our newsroom to the heart of Birmingham and invited people to tell us what they care about - we listened, followed their tips, and went out and reported on what we heard. We’re also hiring more reporters out of London, starting in Birmingham. We don’t think the media has listened to people enough, so that’s what we’re doing. Listening to the stories of Birmingham, opening up our newsroom to its people and telling the real story of Britain from the heart of one of its biggest and best cities. You decide the news. We’ll tell your story. Birmingham, be heard. #HuffPostListens
Read more about the project here