Innovative projects ensuring the safety of people – particularly women – in city streets are emerging as private initiatives throughout Italy. This phenomenon, along with recent data collected, is part of a wider socio-political debate, whose aim is not only to conduct detailed examinations but to take action and broaden the established social vision.
It’s late. Or maybe not even that late. Either way, while you have not yet reached your destination, you watch your back and check the streets knowing that only one thing matters: it’s dark outside. And you’re alone. Given recent crime rates and statistics, heightened fear for personal safety in Italian metropolitan areas has been at the centre of several independent projects providing a variety of services for citizens – in particular, with the aim to grant protection while moving from one place to another at nighttime, increasingly perceived to be a moment of higher vulnerability and danger. The night is indeed not only an occasion for a vital urban life, full of cultural, entertainment, and recreational opportunities. Istat’s research confirms that 80% of Italian women have been a victim of different forms of street harassment, such as catcalling or upskirting – that is, the practice of taking photographs underneath another person’s clothing without consent.
Even from a wider perspective, this issue shows no signs of improvement. In 2014, the US anti-harassment group Hollaback!, in collaboration with Cornell University, conducted an international study focusing on the age of the first catcalling experience, on victims’ behavioural changes resulting from harassment, and on the emotional impact of such episodes. The survey, which involved 22 countries, showed that an average of 84% of interviewees experienced street harassment before the age of 17. The results raised concerns not only about the emotional impacts on victims, such as anger and humiliation, but also about the heavy influence caused by street harassment on a young person’s development and growth. Italy specifically was the country with the highest percentage of women who chose to change their usual journey to get home because of catcalling risks.
Although available data generally displays women as the only targets of street violence, evidence suggests that this sinister face of the night not only reveals itself to women and discriminated or underprivileged people, but to everyone indistinctly. The introduction of an escort service by Bocconi University in January 2022 is the closest but not the only example of the increase of private action for the security of men and women alike, as a response to the lack of public intervention. De facto, doubts are spreading about the efficiency of public authorities in granting urban safety by addressing the multi-causal factors of crime, violence, and insecurity.
A recent best-in-class example is provided by Donnexstrada: started in 2021 in Rome as a safety awareness campaign targeting women, it is today a non-profit organization using social media to provide services in various Italian cities. While their activities include psychological support, legal advice for gender-based violence, and seminars on women empowerment, emotional dependence, and relational dynamics, they mainly focus on the organization of on-demand Instagram lives to virtually accompany people to their final destinations, anywhere and at any time. This service primarily targets women and the LGBTQ+ community, but requests from men have been registered too.
Again, the issues on the table are by far more numerous and complex than mere gender-based violence manifestations. Indeed, beneath the surface of street harassment lie the issues of accountability, privilege, and dialogue with public institutions. One possible solution, as suggested by Donnexstrada, is to start by providing citizenship education at the primary and secondary levels on an ongoing basis.
“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways, we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”
While these words by Earl C. Kelley resonate with anyone trying to master any complex issue, they also apply to the attempt of defining a new face of the night – a face, not yet existent, that every one of us can contribute to. A face of the night that men, women, and all groups that are discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged, can look at without fear for personal safety. Thus, by opening and fostering this debate, what we are facing now is an opportunity for progress, revealed to us by the unsolved problems we now can see, and which we could not see before.