The Spots Where Sydney Women Feel Most Unsafe

Milly Gerstle was in Year 4 when she first remembers being harassed. 

"[I was] walking home after ballet lessons when a car of P-platers slowed beside me. They wolf-whistled, catcalled and shouted lewd comments I didn't understand," she said.

"At the time, I was in primary school and whilst I was confused by the situation I understood one thing: that I had to protect myself, to change my behaviour to ensure I would never feel that overpowering fear that grabbed at the back of my throat again."

Gerstle never walked home from ballet again.

Milly Gerstle. Image: Plan International Australia

Now in Year 11, and a Youth Activist with global girls' rights group Plan Australia, she recalls countless other incidents of harassment on Sydney's streets  -- what she describes has become a "rite of passage" for many young women.

"Waiting on the steps of Town Hall and having an elderly man approach me and make a comment about my breasts -- on two separate occasions," she said.

"Feeling eyes follow me at night, men leering on me on the way home from the library. Adults propositioning my friends and I as we relax in Hyde Park after school."

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Gerstle's experiences are far from isolated. The harassment and abuse of girls and young women in Sydney is so common that many victims believe it is normal, according to a new report.

"This normalisation has left women to bear the burden of our own safety."

The Unsafe in the City reportpublished on Thursday to coincide with International Day of the Girl, surveyed young women in Sydney and four other cities around the world: Dehli in India, Lima in Peru, Kampala in Ugana and Madrid in Spain.

It analysed the results of an interactive project that asked young women to map "good" and "bad" locations throughout the city where they felt safe or unsafe. They were asked to leave a comment -- inviting both specific incidents and overall impressions -- as well as their response and what happened next.

While the research drew different pictures in each of the five cities --weighing in gender discrimination, sexual violence, harassment, insecurity and exploitation -- Plan International CEO Anne Birgitte Albrectsen said one story was common: harassment.

"Young women are frightened for their physical safety, and angry that this harassment and bullying is not taken seriously," she said. 

Harassment should not be seen as part of a “normal” life for girls and young women. It is not harmless fun. It is frightening, disempowering and completely unacceptable.

Offenders across all cities were predominantly men.

Sydney's problematic spots

Of the 2083 places tagged in Sydney, 75 percent were marked by the women as "bad" (1567) and 25 percent marked "good" (516).

The threat of sexual harassment, with or without physical contact, was identified at 72 percent comments about bad pins. Of these experiences mapped in Sydney, fewer than one in ten were reported to authorities.

Sexual harassment involving physical contact (sexual assault) was reported in 14 percent of comments.

The results found 75 percent of places tagged as unsafe. Image: Plan International

Following the release of the report, a group of young women, representatives from the City of Sydney, NSW Police and universities joined the Plan Australia team on a walk through the city's problematic areas where harassment was widely reported.

These included St James Station -- an at times crowded train station where harassment is often "opportunistic" -- and Little Hunter Street, a small alleyway where women reported instances of catcalling and inaction from security guards.

While on the street was the most likely location for bad pins, there was a high incidence of sexual harassment reported on public transport and around transport hubs. Such "predatory and unpleasant behaviour" increased stress levels on girls' and young women's commute to school or work.

“One of the most dangerous train stations in NSW. I have been approached here by many desperate looking men and they do not react well at being turned down. I’m only 18 I should not have to put up with it.” (Age 18, Lindfield Station, North Shore, Anytime)
'I am forced to change my behaviour'

For Gerstle, and many other young women, experiences of harassment have forced them to change their behaviour, give up study, quit their jobs or avoid places in order to feel safe.

"I am forced to change my behaviour in order to access the same streets which others take for granted. I change my route, walking further in order to stay with friends," she said.

"I cover up in public, under some illusion it is my shoulders that are to blame."

Here's another account from a 28-year-old woman who has left Sydney after living there for five years:

"Both love and hate for the city, as a female, especially an Asian female with curves. I never felt safe in this city. I get sexual harassment (catcalling, swears, pervent stares) almost everywhere I go. No matter how much I cover myself with hideous clothes, this never stops."
Milly Gerstle. Image: Plan International

Plan International Australia chief executive Susanne Legena said girls and young women were being denied "the benefits and opportunities of city life".

The report called on addressing the issue, a result of deeply ingrained sexism, by putting women at the forefront of co-designing Australian cities.

A wider conversation, at home and in public discussions led by girls and young women, should allow them to lead the conversation about discrimination in cities “without fear of recrimination”.

It called on additional laws, at a state and national level, to criminalise all forms of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, as well as ramped up training among frontline staff.