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Women too scared to go out alone

Violent crime is rising, but it is the fear of violence rather than actual attacks which is changing female lifestyles, writes Glenda Cooper
"I haven't taken a Tube in 10 years after 10 o'clock at night unless I've been so drunk that I don't know what I'm doing," says Paula Mackie, 27, an advertising executive. "And I walk in the middle of the road because it feels safer than a dark pavement. No one can jump out from behind the bushes."

According to a new MORI poll, Paula's experience is typical. Women are now significantly more likely than men to change their lifestyle because of fear of crime with, for example, an estimated 10 million women choosing to drive rather than walk because they feel safer.

The poll, carried out for Readers Digest magazine, comes as tomorrow's national crime statistics are expected to show a 10 per cent increase in violent crime. That percentage is likely to include a rise in crimes against women.

Around two in five women said they have gone out with someone else rather than risk venturing out alone. Just five per cent of men said they have felt it necessary to avoid public transport, while one in eight women say they have taken this precaution.

One in two women say they have avoided underpasses or ill-lit streets to prevent crime compared with fewer than one in four men. Anxiety about crime can even affect women's choice of clothing, with one in 12 saying that they have dressed more modestly to deter an attacker.

"If I do have to go out in heels or anything dressy I'll take a cab right to the door," says Rachel, a 30-year-old in the entertainment industry. "When I get in minicabs or one of my female friends is leaving my house in one, I always say, 'I'll give you a ring in half an hour.' But if I do have to walk home my main strategy is to walk in the middle of the road and pretend to be a mad old bat. No one wants to come near you then."

Women also are more likely to think about deterring burglars when they go out or go away. Around seven in 10 say they have left lights or the radio on or informed neighbours and friends. Half make sure they cancel milk or newspapers, compared to 43 per cent of men.

But the desire to feel safe can have a high price. Melanie and her flatmates took the drastic step of moving house after one of them was mugged in the street 200 yards from their flat "We moved to a greener, leafier - and much more expensive - residential area," she explains. "I don't know if it's psychological because I'm not sure that the crime rates are any lower where I live now, but I definitely feel more secure walking around there on my own if it's late and dark."

She feels the extra expense is worth the peace of mind: "It doesn't feel like London so much because there's some kind of community atmosphere which there certainly wasn't in the previous area. I feel like if something was going to happen to me people would stop and help. I never felt like that where I used to live. People seem to feel more responsible for each other in the area I am in now."

The MORI findings also indicate that the large majority of women are becoming increasingly concerned about crime.Nine in 10 say their concern has increased, including 72 per cent who say it has increased a lot compared with 84 per cent of the men. However women's fear is not backed up by the statistics. Women are slightly less likely to have been victims in the last year - 45 per cent of women versus 50 per cent of men.

"This survey shows just how serious an impact fear of crime has on women's lives," said Bob Worcester, chairman of MORI.

Graham Parker of the educational charity Consultancy Counselling Training and Leadership (CCTL), which is holding a conference entitled Crime and the Fear of Crime next month, said that Paula, Rachel and Melanies' experiences are not unusual: "I think women and young women particularly can feel very vulnerable. We see all these dreadful things reported in the media and people are affected."

Wide coverage of celebrity cases, such as the knife-point mugging of actress Liz Hurley outside her Kensington home, raise the profile of violent crime. Stories of how model Jilly Johnson was mugged as she sat in her BMW car in a West London traffic jam must have served to undermine the confidence of women who opted to drive for safety reasons. Her attacker yanked her in to the passenger seat by her hair and tore the Rolex watch from her wrist.

It was song, rather than press coverage, which American singer Tori Amos used to raise awareness of rape when she drew on her personal experience to produce "Me and a Gun".

"We have been made more aware of the risks but we probably think that the risks are much greater than they actually are," added Mr Parker.

He says that he has altered his own behaviour to be more sensitive to women's fears and feels men could do more to help: "When I was working in Holloway and would walk home from the Tube, if I was walking on the same side of the pavement as a woman I would often cross over. I didn't want the footsteps of a man behind them to strike fear into their hearts."

But Helen Wilkinson, project director of the think tank Demos and author of the "Tomorrow's Women" report, argues that the picture is not all gloomy.

"When you look at our data from 'Tomorrow's Women' it is actually showing that women are less concerned with safety than they were 10 years ago. Naming 'less fear' as their main wish has gone down dramatically from 46 per cent to 19 per cent.

"Technology has enhanced women's view of their own personal safety. CCTV cameras, stun guns and mobile phones - particularly mobile phones - have made women feel more secure than they did before. Clearly they are adapting their lifestyle but at least they are not stopping going out all together. It could be seen as as a positive response to a difficult situation."

MORI interviewed 2,027 people aged 15 plus across Great Britain. Fieldwork was conducted between 6 and 9 December 1996. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in the home.