Tougher legislation must be brought in to protect women from assault by men, but public spaces cannot become safe for women until men “change their behaviour”, the National Women’s Council has said.
“We make [places] safe when men change their behaviour, when we have a culture that it is not tolerated when men can harass, assault and ultimately murder women,” said its director, Orla O’Connor.
Harassment prosecutions should be easier to take, including action against the random groping of women in public, which constitutes assault, but which is rarely prosecuted as such.
Practical measures could be introduced to help improve public safety for women. But problems cannot be addressed sufficiently without a major culture shift, advocacy groups have said.
A change in male attitudes – by those who offend, those who stand by and do nothing, or who do not call out men for offensive commentary about women – is required: “That’s what is going to make the world safe for women,” she said.
Domestic and international research has long demonstrated the levels of discomfort and fear felt by women when they are out and about in public, particularly at night.
In its 2020 report Travelling in a Woman's Shoes, it was noted by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) that more than half of women (55 per cent) would not use public transport at night.
A third (34 per cent) said their level of concern about their personal safety in public at night is so great that it will sometimes prevent them from going out altogether.
Many are nervous walking to, and from, stations and bus stops, while many feel unsafe in parks, or other open spaces, said the report, noting that unreliable services leave women waiting too long in “isolated or unsavoury places”.
Better lighting and other changes would help, but much depends on behaviour, Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Network, told The Irish Times.
“There is no great answer to this,” she said, adding that local authorities can only do so much. “ You can’t have CCTV everywhere and if you do, it has to be monitored – you can only monitor so much.”
Public harassment should be better tackled legally, she said, but “it’s like having laws, to my mind, about dog-fouling on pavements – they are there but it’s [often problematic] finding the dog owner and prosecuting them”.
Research undertaken by Plan International Ireland in 2018 showed nearly all women feel "more vulnerable" because of their gender, with six in 10 feeling unsafe on buses, while a third have been physical harassed.
Half have been verbally abused. The 2017 UN Safe Cities report, which examined the global situation, noted that sexual harassment is a “frequent and distressing occurrence” for women in Dublin.
Poor urban design problems are a major reason for women’s fear in accessing public spaces – including unkempt areas and walls obstructing people from view, it said.
Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said the Government has an obligation under human rights law to make all spaces safe for women.
Better education on misogyny and consent is required, while public awareness campaigns challenging beliefs around what women should or should not do to avoid attack is also urgently needed, he said.