How liveable are our cities if women don't feel safe?

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Photo: Yiu Yu Hoi

Last week’s crowning of Melbourne as the world’s most livable city by The Economist’s Global Liveability Ranking and Report had city fathers and tourism chiefs launching into another round of barely concealed gloating.

With an overall livability score of 97.5 out of 100, Victorian Premier Denis Napthine called the result ‘terrific’ while Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle said he would ring Vancouver’s Mayor, which placed third, to boast.

Sydney, Adelaide and Perth also made it into the top ten.

There’s no doubt that we are incredibly lucky to live in Australia but, at the risk of sounding unAustralian, can I just ask: liveable for whom?

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Just days before the Most Liveable Cities announcement, women in Melbourne’s west were confronted with a different kind of announcement. They were told that they should not go jogging alone.

It didn’t come from The Economist’s Intelligence Unit. This time it was an official statement from Victoria Police in response to a serial sexual predator who has so far assaulted 13 women. For their own safety Detective Inspector Allison said, ‘[W]e'd like to encourage all woman who are exercising to do so with a companion.’

Right here in the most liveable city in the world, police are issuing public warnings to women to stay indoors because it’s not safe for them to undertake an ordinary day-to-day activity — an activity that men have the luxury of doing anywhere, anytime without a second thought. 

And it’s not just late at night when the pubs are closing when women are at risk. The most recent attack was at 7.45pm and other attacks have been between the hours of 6-8am.

It’s not only the women in Melbourne’s west who feel unsafe in public space. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who undertakes a risk assessment every time I leave the house at night.

Is it safe to go out in the dark? Do I need to hold my keys in my hand? Do I have to walk the longer, better lit route? Should I take the car instead? Can it just wait until morning?

By contrast my husband has the freedom to pop to the shop at 10pm without a care in the world.

When I’m out alone at night and I see a man walk towards me, I’m scared. I feel vulnerable and exposed when I’m strapping my kids in the car because I can’t see if someone approaches from behind. And I have friends who have bought dogs so they can feel safe walking the streets.

Call it irrational and paranoid if you want, but I know from comparing notes with friends that it's also common. Most women have a whole host of safety strategies when they’re out alone at night. Don’t wear headphones, don’t have your hair in a ponytail, keep at least one hand free, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to get there.

And in the wake of Jill Meagher’s rape and murder women were told that they needed to take even more care to keep themselves safe from predators. Given that we already do so much to stay safe I’m not sure what else to do. And it’s not as if doing or not doing these activities are any guarantees of safety anyhow.

Admittedly the Global Liveability Ranking is relative and looks at things like political stability, availability of health care and the like, so we can assume that things are even worse for women in other cities in the world.

But what does ‘liveable’ mean if we have all these things, yet, women don’t feel safe leaving their houses alone at night?

Rather than simply congratulating ourselves for our high Global Liveability Rankings, we need to acknowledge that until women can move around public space as freely as men and without fear, then we still have a ways to go before we can truly say that our cities are liveable.

Kasey Edwards is the bestselling author of four books. www.kaseyedwards.com