In the late-19th century most cities and towns were poorly lit and the inner city had a dubious reputation. Women rarely went out unaccompanied after dark. In the 1870s and 1880s there was a moral panic about young men dubbed ‘larrikins’ loitering around town centres.
Wealthy young women were chaperoned in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but this had as much to do with preserving a respectable reputation as personal safety.
From 1878 the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) began to provide accommodation for newly arrived immigrant women. Youth hostels also later housed young women coming from rural areas to work in cities.
More women ventured into town and city centres at night in the 20th century as street lighting improved, late-night shopping was introduced and car ownership became widespread.
A den of vice?
The inner city is often perceived as the most crime-ridden part of the city. In the minds of many this is where unknown unsavoury characters hang out. Yet people are most likely to be assaulted, raped or murdered by a family member or someone they know in the suburbs.
Quantifying the threat
For women the greatest physical threat comes from their partner or ex-partners. While women are more likely to be raped in their own homes and by someone they know, fear of rape and assault by strangers causes some to restrict their movements. Young men on their own are also a target for groups of thugs. While the risk of a random attack is low, some women do not venture out of their homes at night unaccompanied unless driving a car. Since the 1970s some feminists have responded by holding ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches.
Sex workers are at risk of violence, especially street walkers who get into clients’ cars and drive to isolated locations.
Safety of children
Childhood play was rarely supervised by adults up until the 1970s and often went beyond the boundary of the suburban back yard. The fear of abduction of children increased from the 1980s. Yet the largest threat comes from relatives and friends of the child rather than from strangers. Ninety percent of all child deaths are the outcome of actions by someone they know.
Children are seen to be at risk on their journey to and from school, and most young children are either driven to school or walked there by an adult. Ironically, the greater threat to a child is the risk of being hit by traffic, which the practice of driving children exacerbates.
In 1988 the Education Department introduced a programme called ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ into primary schools. It includes different interventions for children of different ages and aims to give children skills to cope with situations that might involve abuse, both from strangers and people known to them.
Hitchhikers’ guide to New Zealand
New Zealand used to have a reputation as a hitchhiking paradise and it is still common to see hitchhikers on state highways, although they are rarely single women. Murders of hitchhikers have led to advice not to take the risk, or if people choose to do it to hitchhike in pairs.
Abductions and kidnappings
Abductions and kidnappings are uncommon and it is even rarer for the victim to be unknown to the perpetrator. Before the mid-1990s there were fewer than 200 annual abductions. Since 1997, they have become more frequent, with well over 200, and occasionally 300, reported each year. Child abductions are most commonly the acts of parents involved in custody battles.
Groups of drunks behaving disruptively can be very intimidating. This became a greater problem after liquor licensing laws were relaxed during the 1990s which allowed more liquor outlets, open much later than before. Alcohol bans in public places in many cities have been implemented from the early 21st century to help increase levels of perceived safety.