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Fighting back against street violence: New ideas to help protect women and girls

A group of young people training with firefighters as part of the Firebreak programme.

According to the latest government figures, around two women are killed by men in England and Wales a week.

The statistics for 2021 also record more than 80,000 cases of rape and sexual assault, and in the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, there is growing momentum toward making the streets a safer place for women and girls.

Right: Young people working with firefighters as part of the Firebreak programme. Image credit: Essex County Fire and Rescue Service.

ARU students are playing a key role in helping to shape policy by collaborating with the police, fire service and councils in Essex.

The Students at the Heart of Knowledge Exchange (SHoKE) programme worked alongside these key services to focus on tackling the root causes of violence against women. It enabled students to apply problem-solving techniques and make a personal social impact by changing attitudes and behaviours.

SHoKE is entirely voluntary and has involved around 150 students across a range of disciplines and diverse backgrounds. SHoKE Programme Manager Neale Daniel has been impressed by the quality of the work.

'You never know if these student ideas will be taken seriously - but they compare favourably with any professional consulting output, and the outcome has been quite astonishing.'

The work of SHoKE students has already been incorporated into the outreach work of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service. The organisation's Firebreak programme works with disaffected young people who learn operational drills from firefighter mentors, alongside sessions to challenge harmful behaviour.

One of those lesson plans, called In Her Shoes, has been specifically developed with the help of SHoKE students, focusing on creating positive attitudes and developing empathy with women and girls.

Education and Specialist Interventions Manager for the service, Matt Hill, believes the trusted position that firefighters hold in the community can really help to deal with the root cause of violence against women.

'It's the nuances of language like "don't be such a girl" and how that can make someone feel. So we do a lot of work on bystander intervention to create that safer space, whether that's to directly challenge someone, or wait for a quiet time afterwards.'

The training package is now also being taken into schools by the Firebreak team, and has been so successful that other fire services across the UK are utilising it. The work has also caught the attention of the Met Police and even the Home Office.

'Our students have produced a credible, professional report which has been picked up by police forces across the UK and government. We are immensely proud of their achievements,' says Neale Daniel.

For the students, seeing their ideas result in tangible outcomes has made all the difference. Sam Wood is a postgraduate researcher at ARU who was part of a team reviewing more than 50 safety apps, to see how technology can help to protect women.

'We found some big gaps - for example, there aren't any apps particularly good for women that are in coercive relationships because there's not a great ability to make the app disappear from the screen if you don't want your partner to know that you've got it.'

As a direct result of the SHoKE project, the team went on to win £4,000, as well as business support from ARU's Big Pitch competition, to help develop a new comparison website for safety apps. Wood was particularly motivated by this success, but also by witnessing the real world impact of their endeavours.

'That's what drew me to the project in the first place. I really do feel that women's safety is paramount, and needs a lot of work at the moment.'

The SHoKE student volunteers have many other proposals aimed at creating a similar positive impact for women and girls in the community. They will be working to tackle drink spiking, creating an information hub for victims of violence, and looking at ways to address cultural differences.

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