by Uthra Jayakumar
May was playing hide and seek in a dark room when she was first sexually abused by her cousin. Back then, she thought they were just playing. However, it wasn’t an isolated incident and it wasn’t until a few years later that she came to understand what had happened.
Now an adult, May has overcome her childhood nightmare to some extent but she still fears going out at night and her parents’ warnings ring in her ears every time she steps out the door.
Like May, many women are hesitant to venture out at night for the fear of being harassed. Reclaim the Night (RTN) is an annual event that aims to fight this problem.
Kate Bullen, organiser of Reclaim The Night 2013, said, “This event hopes to raise awareness about violence against women. It is important to recognize that RTN is not only for women, it is for anyone with lived experience as a woman.”
The event is also known as ‘Taking Back The Night’ in some countries. Reclaim the Night first took place in Australia in 1978.
“There were many challenges along the way,” Kate Bullen said. “We tried to be conscious of all experiences and that’s why we settled on the picnic/rally/march structure, to try and cater to a variety of women with a variety of lifestyles.”
Reclaim the Night this year, held in Prince Alfred Park near Central Station on October 26, was an emotional occasion for most women. There were inspirational speeches by Karen Willis, Executive Officer of NSW Rape Crisis Centre, Lily Edelstein, a writer for Birdiee magazine, and Anoop Johar, Bilingual Community Education Program Coordinator,Western Sydney Local Health District.
After the rally, picnic and speeches, everyone gathered their banners and walked through the nearby streets shouting in unison “Stop the violence, break the silence.”
“I will never forget the march,” May said. “I was walking at the back of the crowd and a group of men laughed and passed derogatory comments. One of the ladies walked up to the men and with her megaphone shouted the chant at them. They seemed deeply ashamed.”
RTN hopes to empower women and also stop victim-blaming. In her speech, Lily Edelstein commented on how females from a very young age are given warnings such be careful while going out at night, go to places in groups and always sit in the front seat in a bus while advice given to their male siblings is always to take care of their wallets and to not get in a fight.
Hannah Smith, a student from Sydney University and an organiser of last year’s event, said, “RTN means stepping away from harmful discourses about women’s ‘safety’ and proudly and openly pushing a discourse of perpetrators’ responsibility for their crimes.”
For women who suffer in silence, Hanna said, “Don’t be ashamed. When you are ready, there will be support for you and you will be surprised by your own fortitude and stoicism.”
It took May 10 years before she could stop being afraid and talk to her family and friends about what happened.
“I was mortified at the idea of telling my family and my partner about what happened to me, because I thought they would judge me. But when I did, they were very understanding and supported me and I stopped feeling bad about myself,” she said.
“This is my first year participating in Reclaim the Night. I feel empowered marching with like-minded women; it was a very emotional moment for me, I felt proud of being a woman.”