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Are Women Safe On Our Streets?

Nicola Kean



Paying even the slightest attention to the TV news over the last couple of months would give Wellingtonian women a lot to be worried about. With two high-profile rape cases in the central city in just over a month, Salient feature writer Nicola Kean asks whether the city is a safe place to go out at night.

It’s a scenario common to students all over the city on a Friday or Saturday night. You have a few drinks at home and head to Courtenay Place or Cuba Street to meet friends, you have a few more drinks. Then you head home, often alone. For at least two young Wellington women within the last three months, a night on the town like this one has ended in tragedy.
In late March, a young woman was walking home down after breaking off from a group of friends. “She was walking up Tory Street”, says Detective Senior Sergeant Simon Perry from across his desk in the Central Wellington Police station. “She walked past a group of guys and as a result of that one of these guys followed her, sort of led her into the Mitre 10 car park. He then indecently assaulted her.” The woman escaped, only be followed and allegedly raped again by the offender. He has yet to be caught, although Perry says the Police are still investigating.
In the same area about a month later a similar incident occurred, with a woman being raped at knifepoint somewhere between Cambridge and Tory Streets after midnight. The alleged offender has since been caught.
Both incidents, along with a rape that took place in Porirua around the same time, made national headlines. Coinciding with the Police releasing national crime statistics, TV news correspondents bemoaned the rise in sexual assaults in the Wellington region. With two thirds of the surveyed women making use of one sexual assault support service under the age of 25, and 50 per cent of those under the age of 20, young women do have a reason to be afraid to feel safe when going out at night.
According to the most recent statistics released by the Police, the number of sexual attacks in Wellington – that’s including Porirua, but excluding the Hutt – between July and December 2006 was 132, up from 98 in the same period the previous year. The number of ‘sexual affronts’ has also increased, although by much less. Overall, Wellington has seen a 35 per cent increase in reported sexual crimes over the past year.
However, Perry says that besides tricky statistical misrepresentation (for example, it could merely mean that a higher number of women are reporting sexual attacks to Police), those figures encompass more than random attacks on the streets. “The assaults are right across the board, they are domestic assaults, a case of a husband raping his wife, and so on.”
In fact, 2001 research completed by Jan Jordan, a senior lecturer in criminology at Victoria University – that looked at the experiences of 48 New Zealand women over 50 rape cases – showed that as many as 70 per cent of the victims previously knew the offender. Tanya Newman, service manager of the Wellington branch of Rape Crisis says, “women are at risk generally – not just women who are out late at night. In fact it is statistically more dangerous to be at home – the vast majority of rape and sexual abuse is perpetrated by people known to the victim. Perpetrators are more likely to be a victim’s partner, father, step-father, uncle, swim coach, family friend, work colleague, friend, etc, than a stranger down a dark alley – which is what people commonly expect.”
But in the last year, Perry says random attacks by complete strangers in Brooklyn and in Kensington Street have been reported to Police. “As for the actual offenses in the CBD, the [offense in March] was the first one we’ve had in a period of time, and we’ve had a few on the trot, so to speak.”
“The victim hasn’t engaged with them, they haven’t gone home together or anything like that. They’ve just occurred. We average about one a week, but these aren’t all off the street. Certainly over the last month we’ve had a number of these assaults in town. They’re still as serious as the ones that happen in a bar, they’re just as bad. And it’s very difficult to try and locate the guys.”
On the front line of dealing with rape and sexual assault in Wellington are groups like Rape Crisis and the Sexual Abuse Help Foundation. The Foundation was set up more than 20 years ago, says General Manager Helen Sullivan, to “provide support for women who were going through the legal process following sexual assault. Going through the forensic medicals, police statement taking, and then to court.”
Operating with the help of Government money and private donations, the Foundation provides support services and a 24-hour help line for victims of sexual assault. In fact, while I was talking with Sullivan and service coordinator Aurelia Selwyn in their spacious, friendly offices, Sullivan received a support call that she had to leave the interview to deal with.
Selwyn’s not sure if the increase in sexual assaults shown in the Police statistics reflects the true picture. “It’s always a hard thing to gauge really. It could be a matter of more people coming forward. There have been a number of cases recently that have gained media attention, so that seems to highlight that sexual assault as an issue. In terms of the amount of cases we’re called in for, on an annual basis it’s somewhere between 40 and 50 assaults in the Wellington area.”
“Lately it’s been more towards the 50,” adds Sullivan. “In the past six months, on average one assault a week is reported to the police.” However, she says that for the numbers that come to the Foundation that do report their cases to the Police there are fewer who would rather not report the assaults.
Down the road at the offices of Rape Crisis Newman says that her organization has also seen an increase in the numbers of calls. “During the past year the number of support sessions we provide to survivors of rape and sexual abuse and/oar their family and friends has almost doubled.” But she attributes this increase to a new support centre and extending it’s opening hours, along with increased advertising.
Despite this, Newman says most rape and sexual abuse is not reported, and if it is, a good proportion is not reported the same day. “Our legal system needs to improve so that it is safe for survivors to report incidents of sexual violence and justice can actually be achieved. Until that happens, reporting will not increase.” Indeed, in Jordan’s survey of rape victims, only 62 per cent of those surveyed reported the attack immediately or on the same day. Of the remaining women, only half reported within two weeks of the assault – by which time the window for forensic examination has closed.
Perry says there are a number of reasons why women don’t necessarily report assaults to the Police. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think we see the worst of the ones. Because they don’t think it’s worthwhile, it’s a mistake, or believe that they’re to blame. We don’t doubt that there are people taking advantage of them.”
Other factors that are believed to impact on a woman’s decision to report a rape to the Police include the processes that are followed once it is reported. A forensic examination involving a doctor examining the woman’s genitals and combing her public hair and scraping her fingernails to retrieve any evidence should generally be performed within 72 hours of the assault.
Then there is the process of Police interviews. One of the roles the Help Foundation plays is to guide and support victims through the process, but it still involves a level of what Selwyn calls re-traumatisation. “The process itself is very, very intrusive, very, very time consuming and some women just decide they would much rather not go though it.”
“Any woman who decides to go through that process, it’s a very courageous step that she’s taking,” she continues. Especially given the low rate of conviction of rape offenders. Off the top of her head, Newman at Rape Crisis estimates the number of rape cases that result in conviction is about six per cent. “Nowhere near good enough!”
Perry says that the Police have struggled to see offenders convicted, especially in cases where there has been alcohol involved. “We haven’t secured a lot of convictions in these types of cases, particularly because of issues involving consent. Ones that are convicted are low.” But he adds that women should report rapes and sexual assaults, to make sure the offender does not have the opportunity to strike again.
But he stresses that while women have to look after themselves and their friends while in town, overall Wellington is a reasonably safe place to live and party. “If you look at the amount of people who come in to Wellington on a Friday and Saturday night – and Courtenay Place is still traveling along at a pretty high rate right through to five o’clock in the morning – the offences that have been reported …and the amount of alcohol that has been drunk, it’s pretty low comparatively.
“If you take the latest two [assaults] as an example, they’ve been drinking before they came in to town, they’re students, they’re poor, they haven’t got money for taxis. They split up from their friends, and they live pretty locally so they think walking home is okay.”
While there are things that individual women can do to reduce the risk of being sexually assaulted, the Police and the Wellington City Council are working together to make the city a safer place. Perry says that the Police have stepped up their patrols around the areas where the two latest offenses occurred, and they have been working with the Council and the landowners to have lights and gates installed.
Wellington City Councilor Stephanie Cook – who has an interest in safety issues – says the Council is consistently working to try and make the central city safer. “What we’re doing is what we’re always doing when we identify a hot spot, looking really closely at that area and looking at what is assisting offenders to offend in those areas. Also redeploying city safety officers in that area to start patrolling more frequently.”
Walkwise, the yellow-coated, helpful Council employees who patrol the streets throughout the day and night, are a important part the Council’s strategy. “They can be redeployed within hotspots as they emerge,” says Cook. “I believe they’re also being redeployed in the areas where these sexual assaults have happened.” While Walkwise don’t have the power of arrest, they can call in the Police when necessary.
“We’re now very active with liaising with the Police,” says Cook, “and looking at emerging issues – like the assaults that have been happening recently – and what we can do to help. We’ve done safety audits of the central city, to identify places that were unsafe and what we could do to make those safer. It’s sometimes difficult because they may be privately owned, and we have to work with landowners.”
But for Andrew Gibson, owner of The Establishment on Courtenay Place, there needs to be a more comprehensive approach to safety in the city. “At these hot spots on a Wednesday night in particular there [needs to be] a bit of a presence from the Police and from Walkwise. I’d personally like to see it taken at a bit more of a higher level, with all of us working together.”
“I think that the Council and the Police need to get a bit more behind the students in Wellington, I’m mean because there’s 30,000 of you now. Publicans also; we make a lot revenue out of students.”
And Gibson is putting his money where his mouth is. About four months ago he started up a shuttle service – originally to boost revenue by providing a free pick-up service. “But in light of what’s been happening in town and trying to make people feel a little bit safer we saw that it was part of our responsibility to get people, students in particular, home. They’re coming down here until 2 or 3am and so it’s only fair that we give them a ride home.”
While in the past The Establishment has taken people to homes as far away as Karori, generally the service is provided for those living within the city.
“We’ve decided to do that as part of our host responsibility, on a continuous basis. On Wednesdays it wouldn’t uncommon for us to do 10 or 12 trips. Otherwise they walk up that hill, and it’s just not on. We just don’t want them doing it.”
While there are late buses to the suburbs in the weekends, Gibson is also calling for bars, in conjunction with Police and the Council, to put on buses specifically for students on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights – where there’s “not old dodgy fellas sitting on that bus as well”.
So, while the increase in Police figures may not mean that sexual assaults and rape are on the rise in Wellington, the two latest cases are a reminder that Wellington is not always a safe place. Sexual assault support services, the Police, bar owners and the Council all advise young women to take precautions – to walk home with friends, take a bus or a taxi – to reduce the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Unfortunately, the current reality is that women do need to be safety conscious,” says Newman. “However, modifying our behaviour in order to try and keep safe is a breach of our human rights. Women have the right to be safe regardless of our behaviour. Rape and sexual abuse are opportunistic crimes that are about power and control. Nothing justifies sexual violence, it is never the victim’s fault.”
But there are actions that can be taken to reduce the risk.
If you have been the victim of sexual assault or rape, or know someone who has, there are a number of organisations in Wellington that can help provide support and counseling. They include:

Sexual Abuse Help Foundation hotline: 499 7532 or www.wellingtonhelp.org.nz
Wellington Rape Crisis: 473 5357 or wrcsupport@xtra.co.nz
Victoria University Counseling Service: 463 5310 or counselling-service@vuw.ac.nz
Heleyni Pratley, VUWSA Welfare Vice-President: 463 6985 or wvp@vuwsa.org.nz
VUWSA also provide the Campus Angels service, where an Angel can walk you home from the University library at night if you feel unsafe walking alone.

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