Women use fitness to Take Back the Night

That run a woman takes to prevent a heart attack may help her ward off another kind of attack-from a rapist.

When it comes to personal safety, everyone from self-defence instructors to police agrees that confidence is the biggest predictor of how well a woman will fare if she's attacked. Since physical strength contributes to confidence, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter is giving its annual Take Back the Night rally, on Friday (September 16), a fitness focus.

More than 200 women will be meeting at the corner Chilco and Alberni, in the West End, at 7:30 p.m. for a rare experience-nighttime outdoor activities in Stanley Park. The events include two four-kilometre runs (one each for beginners and intermediates), a cycling party, a yoga session, a star-gazing walk with an astrophysicist, and a mini Wenlido self-defence workshop. (Free child-care will be provided.)

Take Back the Night might seem like an odd event given that attacks are more likely to happen in the home than on the street-statistics from police and rape crisis centres all confirm that the overwhelming majority of assaulted women are raped and battered by men they know. But that's exactly what the organizers want women to remember. The edicts that begin in girlhood-be afraid after dark, avoid secluded places, don't go anywhere alone-aren't realistic and serve only to rob women of their running trails and bicycle paths. Not to mention their peace of mind.

"Stranger attacks comprise a really small percentage of all attacks-about 10 to 15 percent, but most women have a sense of being restricted when it comes to going into public spaces at night," says Suzanne Jay, a peer counsellor with Rape Relief. "This Take Back the Night is about helping women feel more confident and giving them something they're usually denied-experiencing the park at night."

Organizers chose the West End because of a number of well-publicized attacks there. At a community meeting of about 60 women last spring, local residents said they were angry about incidents of men attacking women running in Lost Lagoon and walking on Denman and Davie Streets. (The police investigations are still active.)

"They wanted to make some sort of response to the attacks-to let them know that this isn't acceptable, so we helped them organize," Jay says. She adds that she hasn't seen any evidence that assaults on women are increasing in the West End, and the Vancouver police department confirms that assault statistics have remained consistent.

But no matter how you look at it, "consistent" isn't good enough for women. Jennifer Kirkey, a Douglas College physics instructor, is a member of W.E.S.T. (Women Educating in Self-defense Training), the not-for-profit society that teaches Wenlido workshops on the West Coast. She says that about half of women are attacked in their lives, and about half of those attacks escalate and become physical. In the cases where the attacks are limited to intimidation and harassment, it's usually because women found some way to evade the attacker. Kirkey suggests that picking up some self- defence techniques is just like learning first-aid-you may not need it, but it will probably come in handy.

Although it was developed by Canadian martial-arts trainers, Wenlido won't turn you into Alias bad ass Sydney Bristow. The technique provides a commonsense approach to self-defence organized around the 4-As: Awareness, Avoidance, Assertiveness, and Action. It's suitable for anyone, including children and the elderly, since getting physical is always a last resort.

Kirkey teaches people to be alert to their surroundings, and their instincts if someone makes them uncomfortable. "Don't ignore your feelings. If you know him, don't start thinking, 'But I like this guy, this can't be happening.'?"

If you miss those clues, the next best thing is to avoid the attacker and go somewhere safe. If that isn't possible, assertiveness is the next option. Screaming "NO!" is a good start. Another technique is to surprise the Creep-Kirkey's name for any attacker-with something as simple as asking questions.

"Although attacks from random psychotics are rare-less than one percent-they are premeditated. They have it worked out in their minds. So if you do something different-singing, asking questions, I've even heard of women barking-it throws them off."

If going off-script doesn't work, the last A is taking an Action that allows you to escape. Smashing your heel down on his instep, the upper part of the foot, can break those delicate bones and cripple a Creep. Kirkey notes that this is particularly effective for women wearing heels: "They don't call them stilettos for nothing," she says dryly.

If you're close, smashing the upper part of your thigh into the "soft, squishy bits" is an option. An elbow to the stomach can knock the wind out of an attacker, giving you time to run. Hitting the heel of the hand into his nose won't kill him-that's a myth-but it will cause some distracting pain.

While it always helps to have a plan, Kirkey says that plenty of women escape their attackers without any special training, because they believe they can. "It's more about the confidence. We try to help women take that huge step from 'I can't do anything' to 'I can do something.'?"

Const. Tim Fanning of Vancouver police department agrees that when it comes to personal safety, confidence is key. He thinks the Take Back the Night organizers are sending out a good message.

"Women shouldn't be afraid-they should be alert," Fanning says. But he adds that there's another reason events like Take Back the Night are important for the health of the whole community.

"You're empowering yourself by having some tools to use, but it's also about taking a sense of ownership in the community by using the public spaces," Fanning says.

He points out that just as well-kept homes and gardens act as a deterrent to criminals, well-used streets and parks discourage random assaults.

Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the old exercise motto, use it or lose it. -

More information on Take Back the Night can be found on the Rape Relief Web site rapereliefshelter.bc.ca/ and for more on Wenlido, including safety-tips workshops, call 604-876-6390. W.E.S.T. also publish a free safety handbook at www.kwantlen.ca/pscm/ wenlido/ReducetheRisk.pdf.