Every weekend, a group of women make the streets of Middlesbrough town centre a better place.
As friends, couples or families move from pub to pub enjoying a night out, a hardy band of volunteers are on hand, waiting, outside.
Sometimes it’s cold and rainy, standing in the elements surely a miserable task.
But a quick look on social media tells the real story – you’ll find beaming smiles on the faces of those behind Women’s Street Watch Boro.
They’re protecting women, they’re empowering women, and they’re making a difference.
And they’re having fun doing it.
“I’m a real woman’s woman. I got into this to help other women, but I absolutely love volunteering with everyone,” said Sofia, a volunteer with the group.
“Pretty quickly, we’ve become like a big family. People might read this and think ‘I don’t fancy the sound of standing about in the cold all night’, but we meet some incredible people and it’s good to know you’ve made a difference.”
“When I was at university my drink was spiked. I lost four hours. I remember the reaction from pretty much everyone was that it was my responsibility that I’d been spiked.
“Women should be able to go out for a cocktail with friends and not have to look over their shoulder. We have a right to be safe.”
That’s Beth’s story.
It’s why she got involved in Women’s Street Watch Boro and was just one of the motivating factors behind its formation.
We are Middlesbrough met Beth – along with Sofia, Jess and Bekah from the group – to find out a bit more about what they do.
Every woman will have a similar story to Beth’s, or know someone who has.
And all those involved have drawn on those experiences as their inspiration to help.
They’re all passionate, enthusiastic and positive about Middlesbrough – they advocate for women, and help them feel safe when they head out on the town.
And Middlesbrough is a very typical large town, not much different to many others in the UK.
Every weekend, its pubs and bars fill up and later on, queues snake outside its nightclubs as revellers drink, catch up with friends, dance, and maybe even meet new people.
Sometimes, they drink too much alcohol or take drugs.
It makes people – especially women – vulnerable to violence or abuse.
Women being ‘spiked’ – unwittingly consuming drugs, which have usually been placed in their drink without their knowledge – is also another big problem.
It’s not something that is Middlesbrough-specific, it’s an issue all over the country.
And it’s where Women’s Street Watch come in.
The group began in November 2021, as nightlife got back to ‘normal’ after the Covid lockdowns of the previous 18 months.
“We’ve got three main objectives,” said Beth. “We want to reduce the pressure on emergency services, provide training qualifications to our volunteers, and act as a deterrent to potential offenders.”
Bekah continued: “I don’t know how much of it is true, but I think when we’re out as a visible group outside the pubs and clubs then people are more aware of their behaviour.
“They might look over and think ‘there’s someone watching who isn’t drunk’, and they won’t do something they might have done.
“If we can stop one young woman being spiked, or make another feel safer going on a night out, then I’d say that’s a success.”
“I’ve actually heard someone say ‘we better be careful, Women’s Street Watch are watching’,” she half-jokes.
“Obviously, the pubs and clubs have their own security and policies but we operate on the street outside. It’s important there’s someone there too.”
So what does a typical night out look like for the volunteers?
“You do have some odd conversations, and sometimes it can be taxing dealing with men who ask ‘why isn’t there a men’s street watch?’,” smiles Jess.
“We all wholeheartedly agree that more needs to be done to tackle the male mental health crisis, and would encourage anyone to set up a group to deal with that.
“But we know that there’s a need for what we do as well – and our group has been set up to protect women and look after them. It’s something we’re passionate about.”
A new generation of revellers have emerged post-pandemic – young people who may have lost out on their rite of passage into pubs and clubs after turning 18.
And many older drinkers have simply missed the experience, bottling up their ‘big night out’ excitement and meeting up with people for the first time in potentially a year or two.
The volunteers at Women’s Street Watch have noticed a difference in behaviour.
“I feel like everyone has been just letting off steam after the last two years,” said Sofia, who moved to Middlesbrough from York but now feels an adopted Teessider.
“And I think with that, behaviour has changed.”
Bekah agrees: “Some young people are drinking more than they might have done before,
“People have a right to do that and we’re not here to stop people having fun.
“But that is when women can become vulnerable, and it’s important there is someone there to help.”
Foil drink toppers – which provide a simple cover which fits on top of a glass to prevent drinks being spiked – are handed out to revellers before they go into bars and clubs.
Frustratingly, says Beth, for an organisation which relies on donations, they find too many have been stuck to walls and the pavement outside popular town centre venues.
“That can be annoying, we have to find the money to pay for them and I want women to realise how effective they can be,” said Beth.
“It can be the difference between something being dropped into a drink or not.”
They offer practical support – a friendly shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen, the patience to sit with someone while they calm down or sober up, the understanding that maybe the night is over, and a taxi home is the best bet.
Sometimes, the volunteers will need to be an advocate for women who need medical attention.
They’re also starting outreach work to help educate young women in colleges.
And while there are other volunteer organisations who do sterling work offering first aid and practical support on a night time, alongside the hardworking and hard-pressed emergency services, Women’s Street Watch offer something a little different.
Many of the volunteers work for organisations which help victims of rape and domestic violence – they know how to spot signs of potential trouble.
“We’re hyper-aware when we’re out, you learn quite quickly to figure out the signs of something happening,” said Sofia.
Bekah continued: “If a woman needs help, we literally form a bit of a human wall around them.”
To keep growing, and to make sure they’re out every night they need to be, Women’s Street Watch Boro needs more women to volunteer.
“Oh people will love it! The highs absolutely outweigh any lows,” continued Sofia, who said young women are starting to recognise the help that’s now on offer.
“We had a woman who came and told us she thought we were brilliant, and tried to give us her last cigarette to say thanks,” said Jess.
“There’s already a bond between women on a night out. We’re bringing the girls’ toilets mentality out onto the street.”
Beth said: “We have some people who can only spare one or two nights a month and some who do it more often – but any time women can spare is so valuable.
“You’re not only helping but we’re all friends. It feels good to share that feeling with other good people.”
All you need to volunteer is an up to date DBS.
If you’re interested, contact email@example.com or search Women’s Street Watch Boro on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.