Just over half the women who visit Wollongong’s CBD feel safe, and two thirds have experienced some type of harassment, according to the new results of a council survey.
The survey also showed that 75 per cent of women surveyed have had to modify their behaviour after witnessing someone else being harassed, and that they use strategies like walking with groups of strangers or using their phones to avoid being alone.
These results, collected in March, come despite a significant drop in crime rates in the CBD in recent years, and have prompted a multi-agency safety campaign.
On Thursday, the council, police, the NSW government and community groups launched the second phase of I Belong in the Gong, to help address issues like harassment and make the city feel like a safer place for everyone.
Started in March with a video campaign, the safety initiative will now ask all retailers in the CBD to demonstrate their support by signing up to a new retail charter.
Shop owners will display prominent pink stickers to let people know they are a safe haven, and make a commitment that their store doesn’t support unwelcome behaviour.
Swell Coffee owner Mike Starr has been one of the first to take up the initiative, and said he wanted to build a culture that helped people to feel safer.
“I think we’ve seen the CBD tidy up a little, and we’re certainly not seeing the aggression there once was,” he said.
“This will let people know that we’re a safe place that they can come to if they are uncomfortable, and that’s what we want to do – just shake off any idea that people would be uncomfortable here.”
Wollongong Police District acting superintendent inspector Mark Wall said the new role of retailers would allow police and security to better address any safety issues.
“The businesses will be able to provide us with more information about what’s happening and we can then act on that information,” he said.
“We’ve seen a reduction in most categories of crime in the Wollongong Police District over the last few years, so now we’re working on preventing and disrupting crime, and hopefully that will lead to further reductions in crime, and help the perception so that people can feel safe in the city.”
Wollongong lord mayor Gordon Bradbery said he hoped all retailers would come on board.
“This is a bit like the program which has come out of the UK ‘Ask for Angela’, and all these sorts of things are ways in which women can feel safer,” he said.
“It recognises that there are places you can go to get help if it’s required, and the retailers will work with the council and police to help us target specific areas if there are issues.”
Cr Bradbery acknowledged that issues like verbal harassment or fear of walking alone were not likely to be reported to police and would therefore not be included in official crime statistics.
He said he hoped the I Belong in the Gong campaign would help to shift the way women felt and were treated in the community, and shed a light on these under reported issues.
“This is a mammoth task and it needs to happen at all sorts of levels: from the inclusion of women in roles of leadership through to the right of a woman to walk through the mall or any participate in community space without harassment,” he said.
“This is just one more way we can add to the debate and change people’s perceptions.
“We’re a welcoming place, a friendly place and everyone should feel safe here.”