By Holly Mottram – Regular Contributor
We are told to walk with friends.
We are told to dress modestly.
We are told to stick to the main roads.
We are told to avoid the night.
And yet, it is not us who must change, for no change has happened.
For the past week, the disappearance of Sarah Everard has dominated news headlines and shocked the nation. It has sparked a social media drive campaigning for safe streets, making many women realise that for all the precautions we may take, they are not enough. They are not enough because no matter how many times we hold our keys between our fingers, look over our shoulder, forgo our headphones to hear footsteps or keep to well-lit paths, it is not for women to take precautions. This should not be the norm. This should not be accepted as appropriate or right, it is the fundamental mentality we must change to make our country safer for all who live here.
Sarah Everard, 33, walked home from her friend’s place on Wednesday 3rd March. She left at 9 pm, wearing her green raincoat and a white beanie then told her boyfriend she had left and took a well-lit route home that should have taken 50 minutes. Three days later on Saturday 6th, the Metropolitan Police issued an appeal over her disappearance. So, the question remains: what happened to Sarah Everard?
Over a week after her initial disappearance, we have some answers. It is believed she was kidnapped and murdered by a serving police officer on her walk home. The suspect named by the Met as Wayne Couzens is an armed officer employed in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic service. He has been arrested on suspicion of the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard. At the time of writing, human remains have been found in a wooded area in Kent, though unidentified at present, it is suspected to be the body of Sarah.
Since the announcement of her disappearance, there has been an increasing social media campaign led by women who can relate all too much to this horrendous event. Sarah is yet another face amongst the growing sea of women who have faced the potentially fatal result of life-long conditioning and victim-blaming. Yesterday, MP Jess Phillips speaking in the House of Commons, read out a list of 118 names of women murdered by men who had been convicted in the past year. The 5-minute speech, while powerful, acts as a reminder of the violence women face every day and as a lesson to society that for all the steps women take to avoid this fate, for many it is not enough.
From childhood, women are told to take ‘necessary’ precautions when walking at night. Sarah Everard took all the ‘right’ precautions. Walked under streetlights. Wore bright clothing. Messaged her boyfriend that she was coming home. Wore appropriate footwear.
And yet, like so many women, it was not enough.
It was not enough because telling women to dress modestly, wear trainers in case they need to run or to avoid walking at night is a method of victim-blaming. It is preparing women to be attacked and to know how to act when they face harassment. When not if. This comes at a time when a recent UN report found that 97% of women have faced some form of harassment in their life. This astounding statistic is a day-to-day reality for most women. The report found 70% of women had experienced sexual harassment in public and highlighted the international nature of this issue. It is not just women in the UK that face these fears, but 9 out of 10 women globally can feel unsafe in public places. From this report, it is evident that the systems put in place to resolve this violence do not work.
The fundamental, patriarchal, systemic inequality faced by women worldwide shows one of its many faces in the victim-blaming discourse surrounding Sarah Everard. It should not matter if she was walking home at 9 pm or 3 am. It should not matter if she chose to wear a bright green raincoat or a black hoodie. It should not matter whether or not she told her boyfriend she was on her way home because women should not have to live in a world where these are the given standards to keep themselves ‘safe’ at night.
Instead of telling women to take these precautions, a more fundamental and systemic approach should be taken. Not telling women to cover up, instead, teaching men to treat everyone as worthy of their respect, whether male or female. Not telling women to always look over their shoulder, instead, teaching men the importance of consent. The different ways we teach boys and girls and the practices they are taught as children inform the way they act in adulthood. If we start teaching all children about the importance of equality, consent and respect we will begin to see a change in society. Not just in the way women are treated at night, but in their workplaces, in their educational institutions, in the way trans men and women are treated. In the way femme men and masculine women, LGBTQ+ members, ethnic minorities and disabled people are treated. A systemic change is needed at the very heart of British society.
Boris Johnson commented on Sarah’s disappearance saying he was “shocked and deeply saddened.” Yet I am not shocked. After all, why should women be shocked when we have been conditioned to believe that it is a possible eventuality of walking at night. It is simply the result of a lifetime of preparation by women to deal with harassment, assault, kidnap or rape.
From news reports in the last 12 months alone, it is evident that things are not getting better for women. A Guardian survey found that 1 in 5 women feared for their physical safety from online abuse in a study conducted in 20 countries. A WHO report found that 1 in 3 women world-wide have been subject to sexual or physical abuse in their lifetime. This is a global systemic issue that affects half of the world’s population and is entirely preventable.
To remedy this growing inequality, we must change the way we view women in society. Not as vulnerable, weak objects, but as equals, in every element of life. Both in the physical sense of the word, but also to live within a society that respects women as they do many men. We cannot call this country just. We cannot call this country fair. We cannot say that women are treated the same as men when 97% have been harassed. Many are sufferers of domestic violence. Catcalling, wolf-whistling, upskirting, are facts of everyday life for women. The normalisation of these forms of harassment is one of the many roots of systemic inequalities against women.
One of my friends recently said to me “this is a generation of revolutions”. I hope that the tragedy of Sarah Everard wakes the world up to the vile inequality and victim-blaming omnipresent in today’s society. I hope that people understand this could have been prevented, and should be prevented in the future by a revolutionary overturn of modern societal perceptions of women as objects, as weak, to be preyed upon and instead begin to view us as equals.
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