Fear buttons pushed as women contemplate the lonely walk home

Article by Clay Lucas and Stephanie Gardiner /
The Age /
September 29, 2012 /
Click here to view original /

THE abduction and murder of Jill Meagher after a night out with workmates – a typical Friday for many young Melbourne women – has left a city with heightened fears that the streets are no longer safe.

Criminologists and psychologists said yesterday the case had gripped the community because it embodied many fears women already held about their own safety.

The murder of a pretty young Irish woman on the sort of popular social drinking strip on which Melbourne prides itself, had left many women scared they were at risk.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a Melbourne University academic who has written about fear of crime in public space, said the murder was indeed a tragedy.

But she said she also feared it would start a phenomenon in which Melburnians would start believing the attack was the city’s new reality.

”If women internalise that and start believing that’s our reality, that becomes our reality,” she said.

”And it becomes where women are willing to say ‘It’s not OK for me to walk home at night’. And who wins then?”

She compared the community’s shock at this week’s events to fears of terrorism.

Little media reporting was devoted to domestic violence, Dr Rosewarne said, while the idea of ”the man in the bushes” was reported almost excessively, to the point where ”we think this is what we need to be fearful of”’.

Australian crime statistics show the country’s homicide rate at historic lows, that what has happened to Ms Meagher is rare.

”It’s really salient in our minds that this has happened to somebody,” said Dr Helen Paterson, a forensic psychology lecturer at Sydney University.

”When something is salient in our minds, we tend to think that things happen more frequently than they actually do.” In the most recently available Australian Institute of Criminology figures, in 2009-10 there were 279 victims of homicide in Australia, or 1.3 people per 100,000 of the population.

Of the 95 women who were homicide victims in that time, most were killed by someone they knew, and 12 were killed by a stranger.

A Brunswick feminist group is in Sydney Road, just metres from where Ms Meagher was last seen on CCTV.

Alison Thorne, an organiser for a group based at the centre, said the attack had left ”a lot of women” feeling vulnerable, despite most violence against women not being the work of strangers.

She backed the proposal widely circulated on social media yesterday for a Reclaim the Night walk on Sydney Road.

She said that she herself had had a drink at Bar Etiquette, where Ms Meagher had been drinking before going missing.

”I’ve walked those streets,” she said. ”So, I mean, of course there is a sense that this is a tragedy.”

Karen Pickering was one of the organisers of two ”Slutwalks” in Melbourne, held since last year.

She said what had happened to Ms Meagher was ”extraordinary, in the sense of how horrific it makes us feel”.

”It is an absolutely horrific thing that has happened, in the place that many of us live and work and play, and that has made it feel a lot more real and relatable than perhaps the statistics suggests,” she said.

The flip side of that was that every woman she knew had had ”scary near misses”, she said.

The heightened sense of fear was, she said, a result of the combination of ”incredible recognisability in terms of where it happened, who it happened to, and the circumstances, of walking home from the pub after a couple of drinks with your workmates on a Friday night. It is just so much a part of our everyday life”.