This week began with International Women’s Day, supposedly a day to celebrate. The theme this year was "choose to challenge". But towards the end of the week, celebration has turned to mourning, anger and frustration.
On Wednesday, a survey from UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18 to 24 in this country had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had been sexually harassed in public spaces. The same survey warned that most women have lost faith that this abuse will be dealt with if they report it. Another study, this time new analysis by the World Health Organization, revealed that one in three women globally – around 736 million – have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Happy Women's History Month to you.
All of this took place in the shadow of a missing person whose absence was felt by all women: Sarah Everard. The 33-year-old vanished without a trace while doing the most mundane of things: walking home from a friend’s house in south London. On Tuesday, a man – a serving Metropolitan police officer – was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping Sarah; on Wednesday he was further arrested on suspicion of her murder. Human remains were found shortly after.
Before this was confirmed, an outpouring – of concern and sympathy for Sarah, of loss and empathy – had already begun. It felt like another #MeToo: timelines across social media overflowed with painful disclosures about violent or threatening encounters. Women tweeted about how they do not feel safe in public spaces. Transwomen and non-binary people concurred. Women recalled their own experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment in public, recounting times they have been followed or had a man be aggressive to them in the street apropos of nothing; their trauma. And as with #MeToo, for every woman who publicly shared a story there will be countless others who didn’t feel they could or should.
'Good' men joined in, asking what they can do to make women feel more safe. They were met by some with gratitude and by others with contempt. Other men were dunked on for pointing out, as did the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, that incidents like this – women being abducted in public spaces and, possibly, killed by strangers – are 'rare'. True, homicide is not 'common'. The latest figures for England and Wales show there were 429 male and 241 female victims in 2018-19. That wasn’t the point. As analysis of that data found, over half (61%) of those women were killed by a current or ex-partner. And most of those men were also killed by men. Added to that, while rape reports rise, convictions continue to fall.
This week began with International Women's Day, supposedly a day to celebrate. This year's theme was 'choose to challenge'. But towards the end of the week, celebration has turned to mourning, anger and frustration.
It’s all connected. As the evidence published by the UN and WHO shows, most women have been subjected to gender-based violence. This is what underpins the compulsion to share, the urge to testify. Most women have lived an extremely ordinary experience which is not usually recognised, which we do our best to leave unacknowledged so that we might live in normalcy, not fear: the fear of living in a world where, for reasons beyond our comprehension, men – those we know and those we don’t – want to hurt us and then completely deny that this is true. #MeToo was just one moment in a long chain of movements attempting to highlight that; more than three years later, we are still experiencing an unresolved collective grief.
Headphones in, no music on. Not drinking too much. Putting a skirt on, taking it off before you leave the house in favour of trousers. Calling someone so you aren’t 'alone'. Walking the long way home because it’s better lit. Wondering if the 'keys between fingers thing' really works. Wondering if the taxi you’re clambering into is safe. Having fun but keeping one eye, always, on your drink. Exhausting.
From a young age, women are warned. We remember every worst-case scenario story, it imprints on us. We are told to be vigilant, to modify our behaviour in order to avoid male violence. We try to forget, to live our lives, but we never really do. All it takes is an unwanted approach in the street, a random outburst from a man you don’t know because you didn’t acknowledge his advances and we remember. Oh, we remember. This has been reinforced during the pandemic – domestic abuse has surged, reports of street harassment have gone up. Women have noted that winter lockdown doesn’t work for them as they don’t feel they can run at night on empty streets. Yet women push on. Why? Because if we did everything we are 'supposed to do', we would have no freedom. The confidence we have to put on in order to move through the world is easily punctured, though. We know we can’t always protect ourselves. That’s why we can’t stop thinking about Sarah Everard. The truth is, we were always thinking about a scenario like this. Consciously or unconsciously worrying, What if...
Headphones in, no music on. Not drinking too much. Putting a skirt on, taking it off before you leave the house in favour of trousers. Calling someone so you aren't 'alone'. Walking the long way home because it's better lit. Wondering if the 'keys between fingers thing' really works. Wondering if the taxi you're clambering into is safe. Having fun but keeping one eye, always, on your drink. Exhausting.
It's standard to tell friends: "Text me when you get home." When someone confides that they are afraid, we say "We know", before trying to move on. But do we really know? Perhaps we overestimate what people really know – do we know why this happens? Why do so many women have these stories about men? Any given act of violence against women has infinite intimate details. We know it’s not 'all men' but how do we know which ones it is? We don’t know why they do it so, instead of trying to figure it out, we tell women to limit their lives in order to stay 'safe'.
And then the ones who are supposed to keep us safe, don’t always. In June 2020, the bodies of two sisters – Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry – were discovered in a park in Wembley, west London. They had been murdered. Two male police officers were then suspended after they took selfies next to their bodies. Also in 2020, the journalist Alexandra Heal revealed that police forces across the country are failing women who report that they are in domestic abuse situations in which the perpetrator is a police officer.
The problem is that violence against women is normal. It is part of the fabric of our society. Until we live in a world where rape statistics, domestic abuse refuges, rape alarms, 'anti-rape tech' and campaigns calling for better support for the victims of stalking no longer exist, it will remain so.
The stories shared during Sarah Everard’s disappearance may have made some squeamish but they are a salutary insight into the conversations that women have among themselves, be it between mothers and daughters or between friends. But they also lay bare the problem with our collective grief and sharing of trauma, the flaws of a movement that claims it can bring about the social and political progress needed to end violence against women and girls but which increasingly feels like an ongoing stream where personal pain is shared. We tell the stories, we march to 'reclaim the night', we protest peacefully, we sign open letters. Still, nothing changes.
Something is wrong. Very wrong. We must have truly intersectional and inclusive conversations about safety. A child is reported missing every two minutes in the UK. This abhorrent statistic conceals another fact: missing children are more likely to be girls, and those girls are disproportionately Black, Asian or from minority ethnic groups. Some of them are young women; they stay missing but we don't hear much about it.
We must remember that when we do not advocate for others, for those most at risk – women of colour, transwomen, low-income women – we all remain unsafe. We must make misogyny a hate crime, as the Labour MP Stella Creasy wants to do. We must acknowledge, as feminist geographer Leslie Kern does in her book Feminist City, that public spaces are not designed with women in mind, that there is little consideration for women as mothers, workers or carers. We need an overhaul of systems – the police, the criminal justice system, our education system – which do not accept that these experiences of harassment and violence are rooted in sexism, the petri dish where male privilege and entitlement escalates to abuse and violence.
Kern asks what would public spaces for working women look like? "A city of friendships beyond Sex and the City," she writes. "A transit system that accommodates mothers with strollers on the school run. A public space with enough toilets." There would be places where women can live without harassment, where we aren't trying to suppress our fears or downplay our own lived experience in order to go about our day-to-day lives. Where we can walk home.