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How Sarah Everard’s death has raised concerns about exercising in public

Lucy Wilde reflects on the importance of exercise during Covid, and how Sarah Everard's death has exposed social flaws that need to be addressed

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Image Credit: Tim Dennell

I had intended to write a piece this week reminding of the physical, as well as mental, benefits of regular exercise. One of the few positives to come from the ongoing pandemic may be our increased attention to mental health and physical strength, given that Covid primarily attacks our respiratory systems.

Exercise is a mood-booster, improves sleep and enhances our immune systems, to name only a few benefits – all of which a lot of us have become acutely aware of throughout the last year. According to the NHS website, within a month of the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, there was a 92 percent rise in the number of downloads for the ‘Couch to 5K’ app alone.

Undoubtedly stats like these indicate an increase in our general awareness of the benefits of exercise. But I think it would be remiss of me to fail to acknowledge the angst that many people, particularly women, feel about exercising in public.

Just over a week since International Women’s Day, the death of innocent young woman Sarah Everard as she walked home on an evening in London, has prompted serious concerns over women’s safety.

In a time when our everyday freedoms have been restricted, exercising and going for walks has become a daily routine; a kind of ritual for some of us to de-stress and temporarily escape the uncertainties of the present. But Sarah’s death has brought to the foreground a societal issue that has long been overlooked.

Women do not feel safe to exercise alone outdoors.

Cat-calls, wolf-whistles, the bibbing of cars. All of these things women will experience, regardless of age or walk of life, and they have seemingly become an inevitable part of exercising outdoors.

While Wales’ education minister has voiced her alarm, stating, it's “a damning indictment” that women feel unsafe to exercise alone outdoors, it seems telling that it has taken the murder of an innocent young woman, to prompt long overdue recognition of this issue.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick’s proclamation that “it is extremely rare” for women to be abducted from the streets, might have been intended to soothe concerns and subdue frenzied media coverage outlining the threat to women’s safety. However, the outpouring of public grieving and the astonishing number of women who have taken to social media to share their experiences of harassment, suggests otherwise.

British middle-distance and cross-country athlete, Sabrina Sinha, spoke to BBC Sport about her experiences, outlining how over the years she has made a conscious effort to mitigate unwanted male attention during training runs.

Cover up. Choose a busy route. Pick a partner. Limit yourself to daylight hours.

All of these are precautions that most females take when going about ordinary, everyday activities, let alone when running or going about any form of exercise in public.

As former GB marathon runner and two-time Olympian Mara Yamauchi has pointedly remarked: “there’s a complete lack of consent.”

It doesn’t seem wildly controversial then to suggest that perhaps the narrative around women’s safety needs to change. But the key question is how?

Sadly this is not an issue that extended mass media coverage of stories like Sarah Everard’s attack alone, can resolve. But the conversations opened up as a result can only give hope of some redressing of the realities women face on a day to day basis.

Something co-founder of Women’s Equality, Catherine Myer, wrote in a Guardian article earlier this week stood out for me. “We can best honour the victims of violence,” she proclaimed, “by challenging the systems and cultures that enable violence and pin the blame on the victims…”

Last week, I highlighted this years International Women’s Day theme – #ChooseToChallenge – and suggested we should increase our efforts to confront the gender inequality which continues to permeate modern society.

A week later that sentiment resonates more deeply than I could have predicted.

As Myer’s called upon her readers, now is the time to challenge the ingrained systems and cultures that have come to view attacks on women as simply random, and rare, societal aberrations. The pandemic is not the only cause for current concern. Harassment is endemic in our society at present. Abuse and violence against women in the UK needs to be challenged and addressed. It must stop.

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