Sarah Everard: the Final Straw in the Fight for Women’s Safety?

In a week that should have celebrated the amazing achievements of women across the world on International Women’s Day, but also those closer to home on Mother’s day, the tragic murder of Sarah Everard by a serving policeman has instead sadly highlighted that men, as part of a wider societal effort, need to do far more to make women feel safe on our streets.

On the 3rd of March Sarah Everard was walking home from her friend’s house in Battersea. Her walk took her across Clapham Common and she was last seen on a doorbell camera at 21:30 that night. The image shows her wearing bright clothing and orange running shoes. Sadly, this would be the last we see of her.

On the 9th of March a serving officer was arrested and would later be charged with Sarah’s murder.

In the wake of Sarah’s disappearance an outpouring of despair and solidarity has flooded social media. One by one women were sharing their experiences, voicing their anger and asking for more to be done.

The message was clear: women do not feel safe.  

And the anecdotal evidence is supported by the data: A UN Women UK survey has found that 97% 18-24 year olds have been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.

Furthermore, on average 2 women are murdered every week in the UK due to domestic violence – a harrowing statistic drilled home by Jess Phillips MP who spent over 4 minutes in the Commons on International Women’s Day listing the names of every woman murdered in the UK by a man in the last year.

It has become abundantly clear over the last week that this has been a shared pain for many women. In Sarah, many women saw a glimpse of themselves who, despite taking every necessary precaution – wearing bright clothes, walking on well-lit paths, making sure they’re on the phone to a friend or ensuring the volume on their headphones is turned down low  – it may still not guarantee their safety, not even when walking home from a friend’s house.

Unfortunately, a desperately sad week for many women across the UK has ended with an added sour taste after a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard ended in violent clashes with police who badly misjudged the gathering and attempted to disperse the crowd for neglecting social distancing rules.

On a night in which women intended to ‘reclaim the streets’ and peacefully remember Sarah, many will feel that the violent brutalisation of many female attendees at the hands of a predominantly male force perfectly encapsulates the struggles which many women currently face.

I certainly don’t claim to have the answers, but I do know that we could start by reframing our discussions around the sexual assault, rape and murder of women.

For far too long the optics have been centred on women and how it is their problem to deal with but also their problem to solve.

But these stories are about male violence. They are about men being violent towards women.

To some degree it is often implied that a woman’s behaviour or her actions are in some way to blame for her abuse. Whether it be her hair, her clothing, her make-up, her eye-contact, her flirting or her alcohol consumption, the narrative has implied that these factors have somehow made it inevitable or expected for women to become a victim of abuse – they were asking for it, weren’t they?

Framing it as such blames the victim, absconding the perpetrator of any responsibility.

But this is about men and until we reframe it as such no helpful or constructive debate will take place.

But amidst the tragic circumstances of Sarah’s death, there seems to be an air of change about what has followed. Much like the wave of public sentiment which followed the death of George Floyd and the MeToo movement, this may be the straw that broke the camel’s back for many women.

Already opposition MP’s are calling for maximum sentences for both rape and sexual assault to be doubled, as well as calling for misogyny to be made a hate crime.

With further protests now planned, mainly in response to the police handling of Sarah’s vigil, coupled with an outpouring of personal, shared experience supported by stark data, it seems a wave of discontent may be gaining traction, with many now demanding and expecting things to change.

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