Wellington mum fighting to make streets safer for young women

Gabrielle Ralph wants Wellington's streets to be safer after her two teenage daughters have been experiencing harassment during the daytime.
Gabrielle Ralph wants Wellington's streets to be safer after her two teenage daughters have been experiencing harassment during the daytime. Photo credit: Supplied via RNZ

By Samantha Mythe for RNZ 

Warning: This story contains mentions of sexual harrassment and rape.

A 15-year-old girl followed, scratched, and yelled at. Told by a man on the street that he wanted to rape her and her friends.

Every other day, walking to and from Wellington's CBD, women catcalled.

At 5pm, a woman leaves her corporate job, hears "nice big boobs, let me touch them".

A man masturbating in broad daylight, leering at two females.

When Gabrielle Ralph's teenage daughters experienced harassment on Wellington's streets in broad daylight, she thought enough is enough.

"The girls go into town quite a lot with their friends, going to Starbucks, to Cuba Street, to the waterfront, to Glassons, like kids do," she said.

"But in the last few months, they started coming home from town telling me that a man, or group of men, were making inappropriate comments… racial comments, swearing, following them."

It was Ralph's daughter who was scratched and sworn at. They reported the incident to the police. She said it was a horrible thing to hear, as a mum, that the word 'rape' was expressed to her daughter.

Ralph's daughters felt frustrated. There did not seem to be much they could do other than sit back and accept the behaviour, or stop going to town.

"A part of me felt defeated as well. Thinking, "It's always been like this, it's just how it is for a woman," Ralph said.

"But I didn't want to tell my daughters that they just had to suck it up. And I also didn't want to tell them that they had to change what they do, like dress differently or stop visiting town."

Wellington CBD.
Wellington CBD. Photo credit: Getty

Other stories

Ralph wanted to see if this harassment happened to others, and designed a survey she posted on a Wellington women's Facebook community page.

"Significant change is necessary to ensure young people are safe in the area," she said.

From just one post, within two days, there were 67 responses of incidents ranging from verbal harassment, sexual comments, being followed, catcalling, indecent exposure and sexual assault - including those mentioned earlier in this story.

Ralph believed that was just the tip of the iceberg, the comments painting a bleak picture.

"We've been completely overwhelmed by the responses we received and it's only greatly heightened our concern about the safety of young people in the city.

"We also believe if we posted this survey more widely, we would receive further examples of stories that should never have happened."

The stories Ralph heard are nothing new. In 2020, an analysis of the country's crime statistics by Dot Loves Data showed the rate of assaults in Wellington's CBD was 10 times higher than the national average.

In 2021, police data revealed sexual assaults in Wellington had increased by 50 percent between 2015-2020. The male-as-perpetrator and female-as-victim situation was the overwhelmingly dominant circumstance.

It was a nationwide issue. According to the Ministry of Justice's most recent Crime and Safety Survey, women (24 percent) were more likely than the NZ average (15 percent) to have been the victim of one or more sexual offences during their lives.

Women spoke out three years ago

Women have tried to speak out before. In 2021, Ella Lamont and Sophia Harrison created an online survey in an attempt to gauge the extent of harassment faced by young women in the capital. They received more than 2500 responses within five days.

Most of these incidents, including those shared with Ralph, occurred across Wellington's Golden Mile - a retail and hospitality strip that runs from Embassy Theatre to Parliament.

"These are the places where we're trying to attract people to come into the city, but the examples of harassment in those areas are pretty horrific," Ralph said.

She has reached out to Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau, been in touch with Wellington city MP Tamatha Paul and met with Police Wellington area commander Inspector Dean Silvester to share her concerns.

Silvester assured her the contents of the survey would be brought up at next week's Safer Cities meeting between police and partners.

"Police conduct regular foot patrols through central Wellington streets, with an increased presence during weekend evenings and during events when there are a number of people out in the street or at venues," Silvester said.

"We know that a visible police presence can help stop offences before they happen, including harassment. However, police can't be everywhere, all the time."

Whanau said as someone who lives in the city, she understood the issues Ralph had raised "well."

"There are no easy solutions to safety and anti-social behaviour in the city."

She said she had been speaking to the public and local retail providers about their experiences, sharing this and Ralph's survey with her council staff.

Lamont and Harrison, part of the Wellington Alliances Against Sexual Violence, also presented their survey to the council back in April 2021. In response, the Pōneke Promise was signed; a partnership between police, community, health and businesses to try and address the immediate and underlying causes.

Resulting changes included the Safer Venues Project, Take10 rest stops for party-goers and an expansion of Hāpai Ake street patrol.

But Whanau said it was time for the promise to be updated and reinvigorated.

"It's clear more needs to be done to make our city safer and friendlier."

In November last year, the council set out a 'roadmap' to a Pōneke "free of sexual violence (and fear of harm).

Daytime street harassment

Ralph acknowledged the efforts being made to improve nightlife safety in areas such as Courtenay Place, but her concern lay with the safety of young people during the day.

"This is young people going about their business during the day, and at the bare minimum they should be safe in the daytime."

The underlying root causes of street harassment were complex, meaning there was no clear solution, but Ralph believed there was more that could be done.

"When we think about girls and women being on the receiving end of this type of harassment, it implies that something else is coming," Ralph said.

"It's more than just someone saying something not very nice. It brings out the fear for that person, implying a depth of violence, which is really awful."

Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada all formerly recognise street harassment as a form of gender-based violence. They have implemented strategies to minimise harm including bystander campaigns on how to recognise, diffuse or deflect harassment when you witness or experience it. There are websites that offer simple real-time reporting helping authorities take action in hot spots.

"Having a full picture of what goes on every day in the city, and where and to whom, would be really useful. That's something that decision-makers can then do something with," Ralph said.

"If the decision-makers fall outside of the categories these things happen to, for them, they may not perceive it as a real issue. I question decision-makers if they would like their daughters to be on the receiving end of this."

Several countries have also made street harassment illegal, resulting in fines and even imprisonment.

"Women should be able to walk down the street and not worry about who is following them, or talking to them, or have all those measures in place," Ralph said.

"In 2024, women are still being told that they're the ones who need to change and dress differently or stay in groups and stay away from certain places and we shouldn't have to accept that."

Where to get help:

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334

Male Survivors Aotearoa

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) 022 344 0496

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.