Let’s talk about…Tackling harassment

Students need more support in combatting instances of harassment

As we move towards the end of the year, the evenings continue to get darker, with the sun usually setting well before five o’clock rolls around. The shorter days aren’t new of course; we’re all well aware of (and all seem to universally dread) the dragging on of the evening hours when winter comes around – and more specifically, of having to put up with the inconvenience and negative knock-on-effect of only having a few daylight hours at our disposal.

For the most part, that’s all the darker evenings represent for people – temporary inconvenience/a gloomier atmosphere – but the darker evenings can also inspire worry in folks who now find themselves having to make the daily trek home in the ‘pitch-dark’.

In Galway, this issue took on a particular relevance last week when news broke that a student at the University of Galway was attacked on her way home from the library. While walking home at 7 pm in the Newcastle Road area, a man jumped out from some bushes and grabbed her from behind. Luckily she was able to get free, pushing him off and getting away otherwise unharmed, but the incident nonetheless was a  cause for serious concern – especially given the unfortunate fact that this isn’t the only incident of this nature to be reported in the general area recently.

Galway is a place that prides itself on being a ‘safe city’, one which even manages to curtail the dark evenings a touch at the moment by being lit up to the nines with Christmas lights. So, despite being one of the country’s most popular and well-populated areas, it’s a place that often feels decidedly safer to walk around in during the dimly-lit hours than perhaps some other Irish cities (Dublin/Cork, etc). And yet, evidently, it’s not a city without safety concerns.

An Irish Independent analysis earlier this year referenced a significant increase in assault-related crimes reported in Galway, with figures exceeding pre-pandemic levels. The anecdotal evidence for this lines up too, with many people – women students particularly – sharing stories in recent weeks, both in person and online, warning others in the area of their experiences and advising them to keep safe.

In addition to the Newcastle Road attack, recently there have been reports of incidents of harassment, of people being followed/groped in other areas which are densely populated with students. In light of this, female students living in such areas have become worried about walking home alone. Uncertainty over what exactly was being done to tackle the issue hasn’t helped, with no comment from the college until recently. Also, some students have spoken of trying to call the local Gardaí after being harassed, only to get no response and eventually having to actually go into the station in person.

However, after weeks of inter-student discussion on the matter, it seems some real progress is finally being made, with Gardaí visiting campus this week to talk through students’ concerns, and assurances being given that a garda presence (both uniformed and plain-clothes) will be increased city-wide, particularly in the areas that have been the subject of reported incidents. Students who’ve experienced an incident are being encouraged to share any information with Gardaí, and beyond that, are being urged to take appropriate measures to try and ensure their safety while walking home.

Of course students have already been taking precautions ever since the incidences first spiked. Last week, a student set up a WhatsApp group for fellow women living in Newcastle who were feeling unsafe when walking home alone. The group chat (with over 250 members at the time of writing) was created to organise walking groups to/from college. These groups have existed at the university before (1995-1998 and 2010), but not for some time. Given the current situation, the idea quickly caught on, with talk now of creating more groups for other areas.

The popularity of the group also let to concerns that it could conceivably be joined under false pretences by someone looking for information on the whereabouts of female students. The initiative was undoubtedly created with admirable intentions, and it has succeeded in providing a sense of comfort and a ‘safety in numbers’ feeling for students travelling to and from campus. But the possibility of infiltration remains a worry, and students already trying to simultaneously juggle both winter exams preparations and daily personal safety precautions, cannot really also be expected to oversee group chats and vet each member.

We already have a bad habit of putting too much pressure on targeted groups to avoid their own harassment – ‘don’t do/say/wear that’ etc. Taking precautions is of course always advisable, but when people are left to fill the void in protection that should be filled by institutions, it can make any person-led initiatives themselves vulnerable to failure.

College-organised walking groups could easily be set up in place of student-run ones, and this would allow for the entire project to run even more safely. University of Galway does indeed aim to play its part by inviting the Gardaí in – and, for example, by handing out free panic alarms – but they don’t seem overly motivated to committing to fruitful, longer-term initiatives, like the ones organised by students at individual levels.

It honestly feels as though without the concerted efforts and unrelenting action taken by students themselves at a community level in recent weeks, we wouldn’t have seen anywhere near the same level of response from the Gardaí and colleges that we’re seeing now. In any case, I’m glad to see students’ efforts making a positive impact, and to see that substantial measures (on the part of others) are finally being taken.

Hopefully this issue will be tackled more effectively from now on. In the meantime, stay safe.