A conversation on women’s safety and the potential to make change
At 9pm on the 3rd of March 2021, Sarah Everard left a friend’s house in South London and began to walk home. Sarah did everything that society has told us — women — to do: she left early, wore bright clothes, walked a well-lit route, and called her partner. But Sarah became the victim of something terrible.
She didn’t make it home.
A week on from her disappearance, we were heartbroken to hear that Sarah’s body had been found. A Metropolitan Police officer has been charged on suspicion of her kidnap and murder.
Sarah Everard was a 33-year-old Marketing Executive living in London; she was a daughter, a partner, a friend. Her family have described her as someone ‘strong and principled and a shining example to all of us.’
This tragedy has caused an upsurge of anger and distress sparking societal conversations on women’s safety.
The loss of Sarah is awful. It has understandably resonated with many women— a devastating reminder of our lack of safety. We all know the fear of walking alone at night, many of us have had experiences with harassment, maybe being followed, sadly, maybe worse. Sarah could have been any of us and this is haunting.
She was just walking home.
The last two weeks have been unsettling for women, it’s been a period of constant reminders of our own experiences, myself included. Not long ago I had a terrifying incident being followed, and these memories have come flooding back. I won’t go into details, but I do consider myself very lucky for how the situation ended. I share this to show that nearly all of us have a story to tell.
For many, even as young women like me, there are countless experiences we can list. Some encounters aren’t always recognised as harassment, sexual or otherwise — actions such as catcalling, inappropriate remarks, even continued persistence for a number or a date despite a clear negative signal. It’s become a period of awareness for what we tolerate. But it’s also been a time of reflection among women — I’ve spoken to my mother about her experiences, she’s told me things that have happened to her mother, my grandmother.
Through generations, nothing has changed.
I sat down to talk to Professor Paola Dazzan, a woman, a psychiatrist, and academic at King’s College London. Paola and I can both relate to how many women are feeling currently. On realising we shared a joint passion for speaking up about this, it seemed like an opportunity for us, as women from different generations, to reflect on Sarah’s loss, the issue of women’s safety and what we, as a society, can do to make change.
It seems to me that the loss of Sarah Everard has affected people more than any other case I can personally remember. So, I opened our conversation by asking Paola if she remembers any other cases which have had such an impact?
Paola: As a woman I feel deeply touched by what has happened, and like you, I don’t remember a similar reaction to a dreadful event like this. In the past we have had terrible occurrences of girls, even younger than Sarah, who have unfortunately been assaulted and even killed, but for some reason this time seems to be somewhat different in how this has engaged the collective sense of fear and need for change.
There must be aspects of what happened to Sarah that’s made us all identify with her. The fact that she was a 33-year-old woman, an adult, walking at 9pm, a normal time, and used the precautions all of us have learned while growing up. We’ve all identified with the ‘normality’ of what she was doing, she was just walking home.
We all felt that ‘this could be me,’ my daughter, mother, or partner. And this is just one aspect.
The other aspect is the fact that the person accused [charged, not yet convicted] of killing her is a police officer, and the meaning of this is very important. The person who has supposedly killed her is from a profession we see as protecting us — it has almost characterised this terrible event with a double layer of vulnerability.
By chance, on the day Sarah’s body was discovered, a study by UN Women UK published results showing that 97% of women between the age of 18–24 have been sexually harassed. A further 80% of women of all ages reported experiencing harassment in public. What do you make of these statistics?
Paola: To be honest, personally, they don’t surprise me — I would be in both categories. I remember being subject to catcalling in the streets at a very young age, just being 12, walking to school. I was also harassed on a bus as a University student. I think these experiences make us grow up with the sense that we just must get on with it and that it’s our responsibility, and ours only, to protect ourselves. As all women, I learned tactics — go for bright streets with other women and children walking by, for example. But I should not have to do this just because I am a woman: this is a restriction of my freedom.
I think what is surprising is that we have known the statistics you mentioned for a long time. We have all reported it to our family members and friends, maybe teachers, who can offer individual support, but also tell us that this is ‘normal’, that we must accept it as just what happens in public.
Sarah’s loss seems to have brought to the attention of men the extent to which women have to think about and fear their safety, what do you think could come from this?
Paola: I think it could be what we have been hoping for a long time — that society, and men in particular, realise that it is not just women’s responsibility to remain safe when they are in public.
What I hope is that will start shifting the way we, as a society, see where responsibility lies. I recently read a letter to the Guardian where a woman recalled being at an all-girls secondary school and given a specific lesson in how to avoid attack, yet, in an all-boys school, her brother wasn’t having similar lessons.
It’s like society has accepted, until now, that the responsibility for women’s safety should lie with women. If this terrible event changes anything, hopefully it will be accepting responsibility of us all as a society. Men, women, young and old, teachers, politicians, or cultural figures — it is everyone’s responsibility, and this is the change that I hope will come.
Currently, there still seems to be a culture of fear — in light of what happened, we are being reminded of the ways to keep ourselves safe. We’re sharing how to hold our keys in our fists, how to set up emergency SOS calls on our phones, and of course this is all vitally important, but is this narrative changing the issue?
Paola: No in fact, you are right, it is not changing the issue, it is just reinforcing that it is our responsibility.
I grew up as a woman, walking in the streets, often travelling abroad alone and of course I would do anything I can to protect my safety. However, just telling women that this is what they should do leaves all responsibility with us.
But we should all worry about the harassment and the violence that is happening to other members of society, whether women, men or children.
How do you think we change things moving forward? Could women’s safety benefit from keeping the momentum and having this at the forefront of societal conversation or do we need more?
Paola: I think this is a very good start. It’s important that the emotion and the conversations of these days are something we build on. We must do this first out of respect for the victims. And then we should recognise this is a problem for society. Talking about it needs to be followed by action.
There are things that we, as a society, can do moving forward.
Firstly, there are actions men can take when they see a woman walking alone in the street, for example, making their presence obvious from a distance rather than walking silently behind, or crossing the street to keep distance.
We also need to promote the involvement of councils in making sure our streets are safe. For example, in the 1980s, following a series of sexual assaults in Toronto (Canada), a Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children was created to address public violence against women, with women and girls walking around public spaces in their neighbourhoods, often with a city official or police representative, to identify areas that felt unsafe. The findings were used to develop recommendations for the city.
Councils and local police could identify existing areas which are particularly dangerous or need redesigning, or where more lighting may be needed for women coming home in the dark (which in the UK can be as early as 4pm in Winter). Incredibly, street lighting has been reduced during the recent austerity period in the UK, without considering the safety implications.
Finally, I think that just looking at the statistics reporting the number of specific events (whether harassment or violence) can’t capture the fear and anxiety that all women constantly have when they feel potentially unsafe, like when simply walking home, like Sarah.
The fear is not something that we’ll see measured by statistics, and yet is something that creates distress and, even worse, limits women’s freedom.
Note: since our conversation we have heard news from Downing Street that ‘immediate steps’ for improving our safety in being established. These steps include doubling budgets available for Safer Streets which includes lighting and CCTV and the launch of pilot schemes to place safety in popular nightspots.
“Victim blaming” has led to decades of women feeling guilty when harassed — being in the wrong place at the wrong time, what they were wearing, being too polite because maybe they inadvertently invited conversation with a smile. And we’ve seen this victim blaming with unwarranted comments questioning why Sarah was walking alone at night. Do you think we are now seeing a shift towards anger over victim blaming? What do you think the impact of this could be in making change?
Paola: It is very easy to place blame on the victim. It is a quick way to refuse taking responsibility.
It’s very sad that this happens, and because of this we see in the statistics that although the number of rapes has increased over the last few years, the number reported to authorities has decreased. In the last year the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that 151,000 people — including 144,000 women — were victims of rape or attempted rape, but only 55,000 cases were reported to police. I think it’s because women (and victims in general) are fearful that the blame will go to them or they will not be believed, thus going through a second trauma — not only going through what you have suffered but re-living it and not being believed.
The culprits who commit the crimes then feel they can get away with it because most victims do not report, out of fear of not being believed.
It is a double failure.
And walking is one of the few freedoms we still have left in the pandemic. What do you think the impact is of Sarah being abducted during this time?
Paola: I think it’s a time which almost creates the perfect combination of factors for something like this to happen. Walking is the only thing we can do, and we’re not supposed to walk with friends because we shouldn’t meet with other people. It’s also a time when there are less people around to ask for help. People feel the only thing we can do has been used to bring blame to the victim, and this may explain why this event has been particularly impactful in the emotions it has caused.
The loss of Sarah has been understandably very triggering for many women, it might remind us of previous experiences or tap into our biggest fears. What would you say to women who are feeling the impact of these conversations?
Paola: I would say that the data — and indeed my and your experiences described in this blog — show that you are not alone. Most of us have been through the experience of being harassed to various extents.
One thing that I believe we can say is that fear has affected 100% of us — even if we haven’t been harassed, we’ve all felt scared walking alone in the dark, we all live with the restrictions of what we can and cannot do.
I would say: by all means, put in place whatever kind of safety measures you need to keep safe, but at the same time do keep talking about this: how unfair it is that you are restricted in your freedom.
You need to talk about this in whatever context you can — talking to family, partners, colleagues, local politicians; and get involved in any organised action.
As a society, we need to understand that this is a problem for all of us.
In our conversation, we touched upon some statistics, and as shocking as these are, both Paola and I wanted to emphasise that fear is not captured in these numbers. We’ve all felt the constant threat, we have used the vigilance required to keep safe, and now we have all been reminded of this fear after hearing the shocking loss of Sarah. I feel sadness in knowing many have multiple experiences to recall; the horror of this should not be lost.
I would like to thank Paola for sitting down and having this powerful conversation with me. As Paola said, I hope we can honour the memory of Sarah Everard and all women affected by, and lost to, such appalling crimes, by making the change that is so desperately needed.
The conversation has started, let’s not let it go back.
We should all be able to make it home safely.
Our thoughts are with anyone close to or touched by Sarah Everard.
If you feel particularly affected by the conversations happening and feel that you need help, please consider reaching out for support. This has been a very triggering time for many, depending on the level of distress, it may be helpful to talk to a professional or support group who will be able to help you.
List of resources:
Victim support — Free confidential support for victims of crime or traumatic events
Samaritans — Support for anyone struggling
Shout — Text messaging support service for anyone struggling to cope
Women and Girls Network — supporting women and girls affected by gendered violence
Ascent Advice line — information, advocacy and support for gendered violence and abuse
Rape Crisis — Confidential and emotional support for victims of sexual violence
Survivors Trust — Directory of local support