Assistant Editor, IFSEC Global

December 17, 2021

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Safe Cities

“50% of all women feel unsafe walking home alone in the dark” – How can security tech support?

According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, half of all women have felt unsafe at some point walking home alone in the dark. Could technology be the answer to ensuring women can finally feel as safe as their male counterparts walking the streets?

Sexual harassment against females has been under the spotlight for most of this year, with the murders of both Sabina Nessa, and Sarah Everard, highlighting the dangers women face simply walking home.

Despite ONS reporting a total crime reduction of 4% in England and Wales in the 12 months ending in June 2020, more than a third (37%) of the British public cited petty crime, such as mugging and pickpocketing, as a security concern when in a city setting.

In June 2021, the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) showed that 42% of adults who reported feeling very or fairly unsafe after dark, had stopped doing at least one of the following in the previous month:

  • Leaving home alone
  • Going to streets or areas that they believe are ‘unsafe’
  • Walking in quiet places such as parks or open spaces
  • Walking in a quiet street close to where they live
  • Going to busy public spaces on their own, e.g. a high street or train station.

In October, IFSEC Global reported on the use of CriticalArc’s SafeZone app in Manchester’s ‘SafeZone alliance’, a city-wide initiative created to safeguard university students as they travel across the city. The initiative enables the three university security control rooms to extend the footprint of 24/7 support beyond campus boundaries, and highlights the growing collaboration in cities between safety and security systems and teams.

For example, if a student is walking home alone late at night through the university campus, that individual will know that university first responder teams are instantly accessible, confirming who needs assistance, their precise location, and the type of incident. To ensure data protection, only when an individual calls for help is the identity and location of that person shared with the university’s security team. 

With women across the UK turning to their own methods to feel safer when they are out at night, many argue that solutions like these need to be extended to the wider community. The WalkSafe App, founded by Emma Kaye after she experienced harassment first-hand, is now the fastest growing safety app in the UK.

The University of Bath is also developing its own response to the issue, creating a women’s smartphone app called Epower. The technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) to immediately send security alerts if it senses the user is in distress, through monitoring changes in heart rate and motion.

Professionals believe that apps like these could soon help aid prosecutions, with data from the Crown Prosecution Service for 2020 showing that of the 58,845 rapes recorded, only 2,102 were prosecuted, with 1,439 resulting in convictions.

In July, the Home Office launched a £5 million fund to help improve the safety of women in public spaces at night. Some of the successful bids include initiatives involving technology.

For example, police in Bristol are using new kits to test whether drinks have been spiked in nightclubs.

Cheshire police are improving current call handling technology to provide an instant visible and reassuring response to a female calling for support.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority is promoting access to an online link with safety information for women on public transport, such as bus tracking, so there is no longer a need to stand alone at a bus stop.

Underlying issues remain

However, Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive at Women’s Aid, told the BBC the issue of safety cannot be solved by tech alone: “Whilst technology – such as safety apps on phones and smartwatches – can play a role in helping women feel safer on the streets, these interventions are temporary sticking plasters, which ignore the real cause of male violence against women.

“Women feel unsafe on our streets, not because of a lack of street lighting or safety apps, but because of the culture of sexism and misogyny, which makes violence against women and girls all too common. It must not be tolerated any longer.

“Far too many women continue to tell us that their experiences at the hands of violent men are belittled, disbelieved and dismissed by police and the criminal justice system – the very services that are supposed to protect us.

“We must focus on challenging the sexist attitudes that are deeply rooted in these services and systems, so that women can walk home feeling confident that they are safe and protected.”

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