Songbirds Choir

Making Consent Compulsory – Reclaim The Night and Harmony Campaign

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Trigger Warning: mention of sexual violence towards women.

In a break from the usual menu of loud music and the sounds of celebration, the ears of the Cardiff nightlife last night were filled with the chants of feminists and pro-feminist allies.

The last week has seen three sexual attacks against women in their early twenties, coinciding with the arrival of large numbers of new students in Cardiff. All three attacks have taken place in the early hours of the morning and have been focussed around Cardiff University’s central buildings and the Cathays area of Cardiff which is largely populated by students.

                   

In response to this spate of attacks against women in Cardiff, local feminists organised an emergency Reclaim The Night march to give visibility to the message that violence against women and the victim blaming which perpetuates rape culture are not and have never been acceptable.

Protesters gathered at the Aneurin Bevan statue on Queen Street before setting off to march through the streets of Cardiff. With dazzling irony the predominantly female group was then immediately herded by male police officers and funnelled along a ‘safe’ route which largely avoided the busy areas of town, focussing instead on King Edward VII Avenue and Park Place. Police officers then instructed the march that the agreed finish point for the ‘procession’ was Gorsedd gardens. In a display of unity, the group responded to the rallying cry of ‘Whose streets?’ with a decisive ‘OUR STREETS’, progressing the march back towards the centre of town along the seething Greyfriars Road. This was arguably the most effective section of the march as throngs of students and revellers queuing outside venues looked on, taking in the banners and vocal feminist presence.

NUS Wales Women’s Officer Rosie Inman leads the chants. https://twitter.com/RosieInman

While Reclaim The Night marches are unlikely to stop the perpetrators of rape, the hope is that displays of resistance like this one will demonstrate support for the opposition of rape culture. The hope is to raise the confidence of individuals to speak up against the misogynistic language and behaviour which normalises and perpetuates sexual violence against women.

However, as activist and founder of Harmony Campaign, Emily Cottrell explained to the march – ‘While Reclaim The Night is important, this is a reaction not a solution to the problem of sexual violence.’

A member of Songbirds Choir, Emily set up Harmony Campaign in order to work towards her vision – ‘a society in which everyone is taught the value of consent, so that all sexual encounters and relationships are equal, safe and consensual, and rape and sexual assault are eradicated at the source.’

Emily took the time to explain a bit about the origins of the project and where it is headed –

What motivated you to set up Harmony Campaign?

I was motivated to set up the Harmony Campaign after I had a slightly nasty experience whilst very drunk. I realised that so often in the consent debate, there seem to be grey areas but there absolutely shouldn’t be – people should know exactly what constitutes consent. But children aren’t taught in school about respecting each other’s boundaries. Consent is not on the curriculum in Wales. Too many people reach university age still not knowing what consent really is – it’s so much more than just ‘no means no’ – and by this point it is far too late.

What would you like to achieve with the project?

I envisage a world where, from a young age, children are taught about consent – not sexual consent to begin with, of course, but respecting bodily autonomy, asking permission, listening to others, etc. I also think that it’s incredibly important to inform young people of the laws surrounding consent, and what can happen to them (prison, the sex offender’s register, etc.) if they don’t comply. This really isn’t a simple thing to achieve. We need to undo the work of centuries, of a society where men are taught that they are entitled to women’s bodies and too much is seen as ‘blurred lines’.

How do you intend to take those aims forward?

Education is the most important factor, so my future plans currently include: Campaigning for changes in the curriculum, providing workshops and poster campaigns in schools, youth clubs and universities, teaching teachers how to deal with consent issues. Offering a source of information and advice through the website and a helpline I would also like to run more practical action on the ground, such as providing free transport for women at night.

What do you think our response should be to the latest spate of sexual attacks in Cardiff?

We need to react quickly and loudly to the recent spate of sexual attacks in Cardiff. The Reclaim the Night march was a perfect way to demonstrate that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. It is very important that we promote personal safety without victim-blaming but reactive responses such as Dragon Taxis offering their deal with Cardiff University are important.

What would your advice to students be?

My response to students is this: look after each other. Girls, make sure you have all your friends’ phone numbers and never leave a venue without checking you have everyone with you. Check your phone regularly to see if anyone has called you. Look after your drunk friends and take them home if they’re too drunk. And boys, never forget that in the eyes of the law, any sex with a drunk girl is rape – for the sake of one night, don’t risk it.

In spite of our varied experiences and whether or not we identify as feminists on an individual level, as a choir of Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans* women operating as a women only group we can only be support of Reclaim The Night organiser Kate Blower’s statement that, ‘Women shouldn’t have to live lives where their movements in public spaces are restricted.’ Songbirds Choir continues to rehease and perform unapologetically as members of the LGBT* community, but also as women.

Songbirds Choir meets 7.30pm every Wednesday at United City Reformed Church, Windsor Place, Cardiff.

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