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Managing our personal safety

Many of us live in, work in or visit places where we have to deal with threats to our personal safety on a regular basis

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Photo: Richard Hanson/Tearfund

From: Managing everyday risk – Footsteps 79

How to manage risks we encounter in everyday life

Photo: Jeremy Taylor

Photo: Jeremy Taylor

Many of us live in, work in or visit places where we have to deal with threats to our personal safety on a regular basis. Managing those threats and keeping ourselves safe can seem like a daily battle.

Be aware of your situation

Depending on where we live, the risks we face are different. We may live in an area of conflict, a city with lots of crime, or maybe a remote village. Whatever the context, the greatest risks are usually crime-related, where people are prepared to use force, or the threat of force, for material gain: for example muggings, burglary and carjacking.

Even in areas of conflict the greatest risks still tend to be crime-related, as people take advantage of the breakdown of law and order to carry out violent crime. A conflict might also boost illegal trade, increasing the market for stolen items, or the profits from crime may be used directly to fund the conflict.

Assess the risk

Being aware of our situation and that of people around us can help us understand if the risk of an attack on our personal safety has changed. For example, are large numbers of people under severe financial pressure or does one group of people feel oppressed by another? These and many other social, political or economic factors can be triggers that cause an increase in crime-related risks.

Sometimes we can get so used to a situation that we become complacent about the risks. It may be that we have spent our whole life in the same place and because we have been safe up until now, we presume that things will continue to remain the same. But situations and environments can change around us. There is a story that people frequently use when talking about managing personal safety – the frog story (see box below). In the same way it can be very easy not to notice the small, slow changes that go on around us, gradually changing our situation to one full of risks.

There will be situations which will be more risky for a woman. For example, a female health worker travelling alone will be more vulnerable. People can also be more vulnerable because of their age, nationality or disability. It is important that all risks are identified for each group of people and are then managed well.

Know your neighbours

With the increase in mobility and communications, many of us do not live in as close a community with our neighbours as our parents or grandparents did. As well as the social and spiritual benefits, being part of a local community can also help our personal security. A strong community will look out for those who are marginalised, and could help prevent them from going down the route of crime.

Neighbours who talk regularly with each other, will be aware of new risks threatening a locality. Being part of a community will mean that in the event of a violent attack the community will, if it is able, come to our aid. If a community does not know us they will feel no connec tion with us and will be less likely to help us in a time of need. It is therefore important that time is spent getting to know your neighbours.

Understand the cultures around you

Wherever we live we can sometimes not be aware of the different ways that people around us view things. Whatever our upbringing we all carry a certain amount of our ‘culture’ with us. If we do not understand the culture of others, we can easily make a mistake that could cause a small problem to quickly become much worse.

For example, if the culture around us places a large emphasis on status, then question ing the status of another person could cause a difficult situation to become a dangerous one. If someone threatens me with a knife and I do something as simple as look him in the eye, it could be taken as a challenge to his ‘status’. Whereas he may have been content just to take my phone or money, now he may feel that he has to re-affirm his ‘status’ by physically attacking me.

It is not possible to have a set of instructions that cover how to respond to every situation. What might provoke in one culture may actually calm a situation in another. The better we understand the culture of those who could possibly be a threat to us, the more likely we will be able to react in a way that does not provoke a situation. Take time to learn about and understand the culture around you, so that you are able to behave appropriately.

Be prepared

How do we carry on our everyday lives and not live in fear of something happening to us every time we walk out of our home? There are certain places and times that put us at more risk. Understanding these will help us get the balance right between not doing anything out of fear and being careless in our actions:

Times and places where there are not many people around can put us at greater risk, such as late at night, early in the morning, afternoon Siesta time or quiet, unpopulated streets. There is safety in numbers, so if you can walk, cycle or even drive with other people you will be safer.

Speak to people. If you are visiting an area, even if you know it well, speak to people living there. Find out if there has been a recent increase in violence and crime. Ask if there are particular routes that you should avoid. Tell people what you are doing, where you are going and when you expect to arrive somewhere.

Make sure you know what you are doing and where you are going. A criminal could easily spot someone who is lost or unsure and this could mark you out as an ‘easy target’.

Do not advertise the possessions you have. If you have a mobile phone, do not use it in an area you are not sure about. Keep it in your pocket, not out on show – that important phone call can usually wait a few minutes! Keep other personal possessions, such as cameras or jewellery, hidden. If you have a car then consider whether you really need to use it. Could you walk or even take a bicycle to where you want to go?

Essentially, personal safety comes down to being aware: being aware of our surroundings, the risks and our vulnera bilities. But that awareness should not cause us to live in fear.

Jeremy Taylor has worked for Tearfund’s Disaster Management Team in West and Central Africa and Central Asia and is currently managing CORD’s humanitarian response to the Darfur crisis by assisting refugees in Chad.

CORD, 1 New Street, Leamington Spa, CV31 1HP, UK.

Email: [email protected]

The frog story

If a frog is put into boiling water it will jump straight out again. But if a frog is placed in cold water, and that water is heated up slowly until it starts to boil, the frog will stay there and be boiled in the water.

Responding to a personal attack

  • The first thing is to stay calm. Not always easy to do in a threatening situation, but if you panic you could very easily make the situation worse. Thinking about the different threats beforehand, and working out how you might respond, can help you remain calm if you are attacked.
  • Do exactly what your attacker requests. Do not do what you think they may want. You could be mistaken. Even trying to give them something they have not asked for could bring confusion to the situation. It is better to lose personal possessions than risk personal harm.
  • Be confident, as this can reduce your vulnerability in the eyes of your attacker, but do not be arrogant, as this could easily incite them to be more violent. The calmer your attacker remains the safer you will be.

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