Voices: I’m raising my daughters in the UK’s toughest town to be a girl – this is what it’s like

·4-min read

Last Saturday I was at a second birthday party. Like most, the adults there numbered mainly women, with a few enlightened men scattered here and there, but happily I didn’t have to help toddlers negotiate a germ-infested ball pool while making small talk to find common ground. My daughters are nine and 11 now and at this party we all had one thing in common – the desire to make the town we live in a safer one for women and girls like them.

Reclaim Blackpool is a project started two years ago to map public sexual harassment in the town of the same name. Blackpool has been deemed the toughest in the UK in which to be a girl, with a 2020 study by Plan International UK finding it has the biggest gender disparity when it comes to rights, life and employment outcomes. It is also the town in which I am raising my two girls.

Perhaps the challenges women and girls face here are part of the reason why, when Sarah Everard was kidnapped while walking home and brutally murdered in March 2021, they did not gather in protest or vigil to Reclaim These Streets. Perhaps they felt these streets, where stag parties descend en masse in the summer months and treat women as fair game, had never belonged to them.

Talking to other women at that time, however, I knew there was a growing appetite for action and a palpable need for community. New research by UN women had just revealed what we already instinctively knew to be true – that 97 per cent of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment and, of those, 96 per cent of women didn’t report it because they didn’t believe it would change anything.

These stories were going unrecorded, but we drew power from one another when sharing our own. I asked women to write them down and plotted them on a Google map – a strong visual representation of the threat of violence we feel every day.

In the first testimony of public sexual harassment shared on Reclaim Blackpool Map on 26 March 2021, a 14-year-old recalled being physically assaulted in broad daylight.

“I was cycling to Asda, wearing a vest top as it was warm,” she wrote, in that way women often justify how they dress. “I cycled towards two men and realised they were looking at my chest. They crossed the road and blocked my path, forcing me to cycle through them as one of them grabbed my breast. I carried on and went to Asda.”

By the time I had plotted around 50 stories, local group Knittaz With Attitude had been inspired into action. They subverted traditionally feminine and domestic textile works by weaving in our collective anger and frustration with every stitch. These pieces of craftivism were placed in the locations plotted on the map in a project titled We’re Sew Done – and then our stories started to get noticed. Blackpool Council asked if it could use the map as evidence in its bid for the government’s £23.5m Safer Streets Fund to tackle violence against women and girls.

It was awarded £550,000, which it said was in no small part thanks to the testimonies we had shared. Blackpool is a town with problems on the scale of a city, but it hasn’t had the investment of one, meaning dire statistics continue to blight it.

However, sexual harassment exists in every town and city in the UK and beyond, and within every corner of society from school corridors to the corridors of power. The damning report into England’s fire service released this week is just the latest corner of the endemic problem of misogyny to be uncovered.

In October 2022 the map was given a dedicated website, and another wave of stories followed. Today it holds over 150 stories, and I know this is only the tip of the iceberg that I, along with a burgeoning group of activists, am continuing to chip away at. As well as outdoors, the stories have revealed some key areas of concern for women’s safety including schools, public transport and, unsurprisingly, the night-time economy.

Over the past two years we have made some headway into educating and effecting change in these areas, but at the heart of this project remains the aim of empowering women to speak up and find a collective voice that will be impossible to ignore.

Thankfully, I’ve served my time at toddlers’ birthday parties, and I’ve come out a reformed character.

It was at places like this when my daughters were small that I first witnessed the harmful gender stereotypes imposed on our children, which include excusing poor behaviour in boys (who will be boys!). It was at Reclaim Blackpool’s second birthday party last week that I realised, even in the toughest town to be one, we can come together in person to reclaim the safety that every woman and girl deserves.

Antonia Charlesworth is a journalist and activist and founder of Reclaim Blackpool Map