Today in the House of Commons, Jess Phillips MP read out the names of all the women who have been killed by men in the last year. It was harrowing to listen to, and the last name on her list was Sarah Everard.
The disappearance of Sarah Everard sent shockwaves across the UK. We waited and prayed, hoping she would be found alive, and then were horrified when ‘human remains’ were found, and a Police officer was arrested on suspicion of murder. And then all the women I know thought about the fact that she disappeared on her way home. She just wanted to get home. And she chose to walk, at night, in a well-lit area, wearing bright clothing. I keep thinking that she must have thought ‘I’ll be ok’ at the start of her walk – and then realised tragically, that she wouldn’t be.
How many of us women have made the same decision? All of us – every woman I know risk-assesses her route home at night, what she’s wearing, how quickly she can run, and who knows when she’s due back. I’ve got off the train in Edgware when it was already dark and wondered if it was ok to walk home alone, if it was a bit silly even to question that, and if I should call someone to give me a lift. I usually did walk home, often in a state of hypervigilance with my house keys stuck between my fingers and my eyes peeled for anyone who might be following me.
We all know that abductions of women on our streets are rare, that rape and attacks on women are usually perpetrated by a man already known to her. We also know that conviction rates for rape and abuse are pitifully low, and that women are so often not believed when they tell their stories.
So the online response to the murder of Sarah was unifying, but also very sad. We grieve the pointless death of a woman walking home. We know that it could have been one of us and guiltily feel relieved that it wasn’t. Women have shared their stories of being followed, of harassment and assault – and pretty much every woman has one – and there is collective anger that these incidents are still everyday occurrences.
Women are enraged that the narrative around preventing assault is that it’s our responsibility – when investigating Sarah’s disappearance, local Police advised women to stay indoors. Does this mean that we are under curfew? That we can’t go out alone at night? That we all need to take compulsory self-defence courses? It shouldn’t.
The pandemic has shone a light on a huge increase in domestic abuse nationally which we have witnessed at Jewish Women’s Aid – many women are not safe in their own homes, and now we are being told that we are not safe on the streets either. We know that Jewish women are not immune to assault, rape and abuse.
We need help to change the balance – women shouldn’t have to make dozens of decisions designed to maximise their safety every time they walk out at night. We need a society where we feel protected and safe to go about our daily lives. We need men to stop saying ‘not all men’ and to do all that’s in their power to stand with women, to speak out against violence, harassment and abuse, and to help create homes, streets and communities that are safe for women.
As Jess Phillips said, after she read Sarah Everard’s name, ‘let’s pray every day that nobody’s name ends up on this list again.’