Image Credit: Molli Tyldesley
On 3 March, Sarah Everard was walking home from a friend’s house when she disappeared. Sadly, human remains found in Kent have been identified as Sarah’s, and a police officer has been charged with Sarah’s kidnap and murder. Sarah’s disappearance and death has been met with shock and sadness across the country. Over the past week, this tragic case has sparked a long overdue conversation about women’s safety on the streets of Britain.
44 years have passed since the ‘Reclaim the Night’ campaign began in Leeds as a response to the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Women were outraged when the police advised them not to go out after dark, as though they were responsible for these violent displays of misogyny. Now, as Londoners and women across the country worry about their own safety after Sarah’s disappearance, it appears that very little progress has been made.
"We are lucky that we don’t feel too afraid to walk around York at night, but should we? After reading about Sarah, my housemate and I walked home linking arms just a little bit tighter, eerily reminded that, just by being women, we are vulnerable in a way that men aren’t."
From a very young age, I have known that being a woman makes you vulnerable. My female friends and I were always taught to walk back from the park through well-lit streets, cross the road if a man appeared, and walk with a male friend where possible. Sitting in assembly aged 12, we were told that we should shout ‘fire’ if we were ever attacked, because we were more likely to be helped that way. Once we started going to pubs and clubs, we knew not to get too drunk, to watch our drinks, to only get in prebooked, licensed taxis, and to keep our phone locations turned on. These lessons in socialisation have meant that I find simply walking past a man after dark to be a terrifying experience.
All women are educated in this way, and Sarah would have been no exception. She made all the right decisions. She was walking through an area she knew, down a well-lit main road. She passed CCTV in bright clothing and sensible shoes and she rang her boyfriend for part of the journey. I was astonished when some Facebook comment sections took it upon themselves to victim-blame Sarah simply for walking alone at night. Is it really the case that no matter how many precautions you take, walking alone at night as a woman is inherently dangerous? Why should it be this way?
Personally, I feel lucky that I live in York, a city that has always felt relatively safe, especially in comparison to my native Manchester. But, in the wake of Sarah’s disappearance, I wonder whether my friends and I have let our guards down too much. We are lucky that we don’t feel too afraid to walk around York at night, but should we? After reading about Sarah, my housemate and I walked home linking arms just a little bit tighter, eerily reminded that, just by being women, we are vulnerable in a way that men aren’t.
It would be easy to pretend that Sarah’s case is an isolated incident. But it comes alongside the publication of a survey by UN Women UK that found that 97 percent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed. While this statistic is both appalling and devastating, it was not the least bit surprising to me or any of my female friends. Sexual harassment, whether this be in a nightclub, in the workplace, or on the street, is viewed by many young women as an expected part of everyday life. What happened to Sarah is the worst and most extreme outcome of deeply entrenched misogyny.
But the solution to this problem cannot be a continuation to teach women to live in fear. We have been raised knowing how terrible violence against women is and that being alone puts us at risk. I was unsettled to see a petition to legalise pepper spray on social media; giving women more ways to defend themselves feeds into the culture that harassment is something we should come to expect, and that it is our responsibility to defend ourselves against it.
The real solution lies in the support of the male population. Seeing the phrase ‘not all men’ trending on Twitter on Thursday was a slap in the face. Of course, not all men are perpetrators of sexual harassment, but the point is that nearly all women are victims of it. The proportion of men who are perpetrators is too large for women not to be wary of all men. We need men to actively protect women; boys must be taught about consent from a young age, and men must challenge any troubling behaviour or language towards women. The authorities also have a responsibility, as our criminal justice system continues to fail women; a recent YouGov poll found that 96 percent of women would not report sexual harassment. We need a system that believes and listens to women, rather than shaming them.
Following the devastating news of Sarah’s death, vigils were organised in Clapham and across the country to honour her memory. Due to Covid restrictions the police warned that these events could not go ahead, despite organisers Reclaim These Streets pointing out that remembering Sarah and the countless other women lost to violence is paramount. As the vigils were cancelled, organisers encouraged people to stand on their doorsteps at 9:30pm – the time Sarah was last seen – and shine a light in her memory.
From Parliament to social media, the whole country is responding to the issue of women’s safety in the UK. It will take an acknowledgement of the prevalence of sexual harassment, uncomfortable conversations, and a change in male attitudes towards women to make our streets safer. We can only hope that a truly tragic event like Sarah’s death can further expose the change we desperately need.
You can donate to Reclaim The Streets' fundraiser here.