Amidst all the drama created by Meghan and Harry’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey this week, a terrible tragedy has occurred in the UK. A young woman of thirty-three, Sarah Everard, a marketing executive, has disappeared. She was last seen walking alone down a main road near Clapham at nine thirty on the evening of March 3rd. On Wednesday, the distressing news was compounded, when it was announced that human remains had been found in woodland. Whilst this alone is heart-breaking enough for Sarah’s family and friends, this story has a further aspect which is not just sad but deeply troubling. The main suspect is said to be a police officer. This officer allegedly used his position as a trustworthy member of the community to lure Jess into his car. This has led to complete shock and many women are airing their concerns. A vigil has been organised by Reclaim These Streets for this Saturday with the intention of highlighting women’s safety on the streets. Organisers of the event have declared that it is wrong that the response to violence against women requires women to behave differently in order to ensure their safety. For if we can no longer trust the Police, who can we trust?
As a response to this disconcerting event, the Labour MP Jess Phillips read out a list she said included the names of all the women killed by male violence since the last International Women’s Day. The names of some one hundred women were read out and this clearly showed that “violence against women and girls is an epidemic… if as many people died every week at a sporting event… there would be national outcry… all of these women mattered”. Many women have started to share their experiences concerning their safety when alone in public places. Whilst it is true that women have a right to walk home alone without fear of being attached or harassed, no matter how far we may go in waging the battle of equality, some aspects will never change, and women will always be vulnerable. It is a sad indictment, but the majority of women have experienced some form of male harassment in their lives, and I am no exception.
I went to a prestigious girls’ school which happened to be in the red light district of Nottingham. One day during lunch break, my friends and I were sitting in an out of bounds area which looked out onto the main road. A man in a car pulled up and started masturbating. I was so naïve that when my friend declared, “Oh that’s disgusting. Let’s go!” I had no idea what she was talking about.
I recall the awful feeling of walking past builders in the village where I lived when I was about 16 and having men shout rude remarks to me. By the age of thirty, I realised that catcalls from men were as much an unpleasant part of my life as a woman as periods and smear tests. I was relatively free from any form of harassment during my time at University, but having said that I was within a close circle of friends and we always went everywhere together when out at night. I do not think that I ever walked home alone because my mother had pretty much put the fear of God in me that all men were potential rapists or murderers.
During my year abroad in France in 1989, in the initial days before I had made any friends, I experienced an incident in the Old Town of Boulogne, where a young man tried to force himself onto me. Fortunately, I had been given a rape alarm by my university and the shock of the noise to my would-be attacker gave me sufficient time to run off. I never went to the Old Town alone again. I have also experienced such incidents as the time when a man wielding a knife tried to get into my car whilst I was stationary at a Sainsbury’s car park. Luckily, I always locked my car door. Yet the worst incident of threatening male behaviour that I ever experienced was when I was married, pushing my baby in his pram, in broad daylight on a common in Englefield Green, Surrey.
Englefield Green in Surrey is a beautiful and supposedly-safe place to live. I used to walk into the village to attend a baby group with my son. One day, about noon, I was walking back across the Common, pushing my pram. The common was open with no areas to hide, but there was a lane running down the side where cars sometimes parked. I noticed a man coming out of a car and walking towards me. He was holding something behind his back. He shouted to me and I remember feeling there was something sinister about this. I diverted slightly but he kept coming towards me. He then quickened his pace and so did I. He was much faster than I at this point and I saw that behind his back was a hammer. He came really close and to this day I have no idea what helped me get away, but something inside me made me run faster than I had ever done before. I called the police, and it was only later when I saw a police photo on the news of a suspected murderer of young women, that I realised that I had probably had the luckiest escape of my life. I never went out again alone in Englefield Green, day, or night.
My experience is not unique, and many women experience similar and indeed far worse. No woman should feel vulnerable walking anywhere in public on her own, but the sad truth is that women do and as my experience proves, even when we feel we are safe walking in broad daylight or going to a supermarket, then we most certainly are not. There are some who claim that women should just not go out at night and that if they do, then they are inviting men to attack them. But we all have a right to live an independent life. Why should we accept male violence as a necessary evil of being female? I have a teenage daughter who is at an age when she wants greater independence. As much as I try not to make her frightened of venturing outside, I need to ensure she is aware of the risks. It is a difficult balance. I want her to feel she can go out alone but at the same time I know she is vulnerable. Our society really does not protect women and we need an end to all forms of violence against women.
I am not sure what the answer is. How do we ensure that women are not attacked in public? Of course, the answer does lie in educating men in how to guarantee that women do not feel scared by their presence at night. As much as we might educate men, there will still be those who pay no heed. The BBC’s Newsnight programme suggested that more needs to be done with the criminal justice system to deter those who commit these offences. Barrister Baroness Helena Kennedy suggested this is because “the law is rooted in the experience of men; the legal system is embedded in the values and perspectives of men. It is only comparatively recently that we have had women in Parliament and senior positions in the Judiciary after a long struggle.” Furthermore, she believes that something is clearly wrong, and we need to look at every single aspect of our culture from how we raise girls and boys and what implicit and explicit messages we expose them to, as well as the education system and the police and judiciary. She mentioned a somewhat depressing YouGov report where young women talk of a daily round of feelings of threat and abuse. Many do not report this because they have lost confidence in the legal system. Sarah Glen, Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire Police mentioned that the Police are currently looking at work within the community and use of civil law since as she stated, “This is not about victim blaming, This is about looking at who is actually targeting women in our society and focusing on them.”
There are also simple measures that men can take to try and make women feel safer if they are walking alone at night. A Twitter-user who lives less than five minutes away from where Sarah Everard disappeared asked, “Aside from giving as much space as possible on quieter streets…is there anything men can do to reduce the anxiety?” His question led to hundreds of replies and included such helpful suggestions as crossing the street away from a woman; keeping a safe distance; offering to walk women home and alerting women to their presence without engaging in conversation. Whilst these suggestions are helpful, they cannot completely guarantee a woman’s safety. We need far more serious change in many institutions as the guests on Newsnight rightly proposed.
I do not think change will happen overnight. However, whilst the spotlight is clearly on his topic, we need to ensure that we take full advantage of this and keep the momentum going. We need to keep putting pressure on the Government to look at effective ways of tackling this issue. I want my daughter to feel that she can live her life the way she wants, without the fear or the risk of assault and attack. Surely this is the most simple and fundamental right she should have as a woman? We need to bequeath to our daughters the society they deserve. Is that really too much to ask?
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