'I walk home with keys between my fingers' - how safe do women really feel at night in Leeds?

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In a series of investigations reporter Susie Beever is looking into how safe women feel at night in Leeds.

It is 44 years ago this week that Wilma McCann was murdered in Chapeltown.

A mum-of-four struggling to make ends meet, Wilma had turned to sex work to pay the bills.

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On October 30 1975, the 28-year-old hitched a lift home from a night out and decided to use the opportunity to solicit business when she was struck from behind with a hammer and stabbed 15 times.

The Yorkshire Evening Post is investigating how safe women feel walking around Leeds at night time. Picture: ShutterstockThe Yorkshire Evening Post is investigating how safe women feel walking around Leeds at night time. Picture: Shutterstock
The Yorkshire Evening Post is investigating how safe women feel walking around Leeds at night time. Picture: Shutterstock | other

Her murderer Peter Sutcliffe went on to kill a further 12 women, attacking many more, in a spree of violence which instilled fear in almost every woman across West Yorkshire.

But more than four decades on, there are women in Leeds who still feel unsafe walking home or going out at night.

In a series of investigations, the Yorkshire Evening Post has been speaking to various victims of sexual assault, violence and cat-calling to explore the issue of how safe a place Leeds actually feels as a woman.

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From taking taxis home after a night out, to meeting a Bumble date, to going out for a run, women have been attacked, assaulted, harassed and made to feel unsafe in all aspects of going about their daily lives.

Police at the scene following the murder of Wilma McCann in Chapeltown, who was killed by Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe in 1975Police at the scene following the murder of Wilma McCann in Chapeltown, who was killed by Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe in 1975
Police at the scene following the murder of Wilma McCann in Chapeltown, who was killed by Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe in 1975 | other

Leeds is to become the UK's first women-friendly city following an announcement made in September, and has held a Purple Flag status since 2017 meaning it is recognised as a 'safe city' to go out in the evening.

So why is that many women the YEP spoke to said they were scared to walk home, to wait for buses or cycle home from work as the nights drew in?

Wallis Furney is an 18-year-old student at Leeds University who said that, while the city felt completely safe to walk around in the daytime, she often walked home after dark with keys between her fingers.

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"As always, the danger appears when it gets dark", she said. "That's when, as all women all over the world know how to do, you walk around in a pack surrounding yourself with other people.

Women in Leeds say they have felt threatened and been victim of assaults and harassment in the streets in Leeds at night timeWomen in Leeds say they have felt threatened and been victim of assaults and harassment in the streets in Leeds at night time
Women in Leeds say they have felt threatened and been victim of assaults and harassment in the streets in Leeds at night time | jpimedia

"If you're not so lucky to have your flatmates, you find yourself speed-walking home, keys between fingers and hand placed firmly on bag.

"It's a shame really, but that's what we do to keep safe."

In recent years, there have been many notable cases involving violence, assault and harassment inflicted on women in Leeds.

Zdenko Turtak was jailed for 20 years in October 2015 for raping and beating an 18-year-old girl who was waiting for a bus in Beeston. Turtak had been caught on CCTV stalking other women earlier that evening on Kirkstall Road and Burley Road.

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Women in Leeds have been speaking out about gender-based assaults they have been subjected to while out and about in the city at night. Picture: ShutterstockWomen in Leeds have been speaking out about gender-based assaults they have been subjected to while out and about in the city at night. Picture: Shutterstock
Women in Leeds have been speaking out about gender-based assaults they have been subjected to while out and about in the city at night. Picture: Shutterstock | other

Dangerous rapist Samuel Fortes was jailed for life in April this year after he stalked, attacked and raped a 20-year-old woman in the city centre. Fortes, 27, from Sheffield, was identified from screen grabs taken by the victim's boyfriend, who she had been on a FaceTime call with when her attacker struck.

More currently, a sex attacker who targeted nine women in Leeds city centre is still awaiting sentence after it was adjourned last week pending further psychiatric reports.

Gustas Adomatis, 21, left his victims 'deeply traumatised' in his 'campaign' of sexual assaults in May and June of this year.

After speaking to dozens of women of different ages in Leeds, the majority told the YEP that they would not feel safe walking alone at night in the city.

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Student Jade Atkinson, 26, lives in Beeston and regularly walks into the city centre to attend her part-time job.

“I completely avoid leaving my house after dark,'' she said. “The few times I have been out, even with a guy, I’m getting stared down and left intimidated.

“I was walking back from the shop last week where two guys were walking past me in conversation with themselves, saw me, completely stopped what they were doing, lunged forward and tried forcefully making conversation despite completely ignoring and not even giving eye contact."

Many women have taken up self-defence classes in a bid to feel more street smart.

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Gheorghe Husar is a nationally renowned martial arts instructor who teaches Krav Maga self-defence in Leeds.

Speaking to the YEP, he said the numbers of women in his classes had visibly risen in recent years.

“Over the years there has been an increase in women taking Krav Maga self defence classes. I've been running classes for 12 years - six years in Leeds.

“We use to have less than 80/20 (men/women) split but now some classes are heading up for 60/40 - Leeds included.”

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The classes teach people how to gain physical control over an attacker, no matter what your size, height, sex or if the attacker is armed with a knife, as well as basic legal guidance on what would stand in a court of law as acceptable use of violence against someone assaulting you.

One of the women who regularly attends self-defence classes is Zoe, from Roundhay.

Zoe, who did not want to give her last name, said she usually felt safe at night, but that certain areas made her feel unsafe.

“I feel safe here and wouldn’t worry if I had to walk somewhere at night,” she said.

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“But on two separate occasions I was followed in Harehills by random men who wanted to talk to me.

“I walked quickly on one occasion losing that person and then on the other occasion the man came right up to my face and unfortunately I had my headphones in and hood up so that was very scary - I shouted at him to leave me alone.

“I now go to self defence classes because I realised how important it was to be able to defend myself."

Over the coming days, the YEP will look at different instances where women said they have felt unsafe in Leeds, looking at figures of rape, assault, and violence against women, as well as speaking to survivors and looking into ways the issues are being addressed.

Have you got a story? Email reporter Susie Beever at [email protected]