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Where can we go?

April 22 2015 By Nelly Thomas

There are many places I don't feel comfortable, and one of them is carparks. When I was at university a story went around campus that a man had waited under a girl's car, slashed her ankles with a knife and then raped and killed her. I have no idea if it's true but I always look under my car if it's parked anywhere other than my home at night (I don't know if the supposed attack happened at night but in my imagination it did).

Nelly Thomas. Image

I've been thinking a lot about safety recently. I am woman, I have two daughters and a radio. I now know that exercising in the park is out. Apparently the presence or absence of earphones is crucial here, even if one is faced with someone with homicidal intent.

My newly found park fear can be added to a long list that includes my fear of public transport. Safety campaigns have taught me to be fearful when travelling on trains and trams. Like many women, I choose where I sit, what time and with whom I travel based on a series of unconscious calculations about perceived risk. I also walk to and from the station with keys poking out between two fingers to ward off would-be attackers. They are some tough keys.

Sometimes I'm too frightened to get the train so I take a taxi. But uh-oh, that's fraught too. I did a gig once (I'm a comedian) for a bunch of young women where they were invited to ask role models about life and other catastrophes. A police officer shattered my illusions when I suggested that when my girls were old enough, I'd give them $100 taxi money whenever they went out so they could always get home safely. She replied, "I'd never get in a taxi alone as a woman, and I'm trained in combat."

OK. Maybe we can move to the country? But I grew up there and I know there's some stuff going on. Besides, I learnt long ago from fairy tales that The Woods are lethal. My girls know this too. All girls are taught from a young age that it is their job to manage other people's violence by staying away from certain spaces. By the time my daughters are 15 they'll know to fear the streets, laneways, footpaths, the central business district, parties, nightclubs and public toilets. And anywhere at night. Obviously.

Maybe I should just keep my daughters at home? But I have been alive long enough, and read enough actual evidence, to know that the most likely scenario in which I or my girls will be raped or murdered is via someone we know very well, probably in the family home by a current or ex-boyfriend or husband. I don't think we're at risk from the wonderful man in our house, or any of the men in our family, but who does? Who on earth wants to think about whether someone they love will try to kill them? I don't want to think about the bogyman lurking behind every tree, either, but it's a lot less confronting than looking around the Christmas dinner table and mentally asking myself the same question.

What's my point? If we've learnt one thing from the heartbreaking murder of Masa Vukotic or Jill Meagher, or from Luke Batty's mother Rosie, it's that people still believe they know what these women shoulda woulda coulda done to protect themselves and their children. To those people who rang talkback or grabbed the nearest microphone or smartphone with suggestions on karate lessons, walking routes, staying home, "just leaving" or being a teetotaller – and I say this with all great respect – shut up.

The reality is there is nowhere for women and girls to be safe. All credible researchers and qualified health professionals will tell you that the so-called "personal safety" strategy we force down the throats of young women is irrational nonsense. It simply doesn't work. The only known and proved strategy to prevent violence against women is to teach men to respect women and view them as equals. Until we do that, men – known and unknown – will continue to see women on some level as a thing they deserve to control and dominate. Promoting and modelling gender equity is not a short-term strategy, but it's all we have and it must be put at the forefront of this so-called safety debate. 

There's nothing Masa, Jill or Rosie could have done. Perhaps that's the scariest truth of all.

Author: Nelly Thomas, comedian and author. 

This piece first appeared in The Age Newspaper on 2/4/15 (http://www.theage.com.au/comment/teaching-men-respect-is-the-only-way-to-prevent-violence-against-women-20150402-1md9j4.html) under a different title. We have reproduced it here with her permission under its original title.

Media contact

For enquiries or further information: Hannah Grant, Our Watch, mobile 0448 844 930, email Hannah.Grant@ourwatch.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000”