Learning self-defence, sharing your location, planning an alternate route, carrying keys between knuckles, and being taught to be nice to diffuse uncomfortable situations, are a few strategies that every woman knows.
It has not only become a precaution, like wearing a helmet when going for a bike ride, but an instinctive process for many; mannerisms taught since childhood in order to protect yourself from possible harm and to avoid sexual harassment. But even when a woman follows all the protocols, sometimes it’s still not enough.
For Sarah Everard, a young British woman walking home, all the safety measures she took did not protect her from being murdered.
This devastating tragedy and the official response to the case have sparked a movement regarding women’s safety, and the unfair precautions women consider during mundane day-to-day activities.
Who is Sarah?
Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was last seen walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, on March 3. That she set out on the 50-minute walk to her apartment in Brixton around 9 p.m., The Associated Press reported. However, she never arrived home and was reported missing by her boyfriend the next day.
Police found her body a week later in Kent woodland, inside a builder’s bag. Sarah’s body was identified through dental records, and a post-mortem examination has taken place but no cause of death has been released, BBC reported.
Her case has led to an outpouring of personal accounts by women of their own experiences, sharing the fears of walking streets alone at night, and a campaign for action to address the continuous acts of violence against women.
The suspected abduction and murder of the young woman has left not only Britain in dismay, but women across the pond too. Everard’s death has surfaced the painful question: Why are women all too often unsafe on the streets?
Mourners Defy Vigil Ban
Mourners joined a vigil at Clapham Common for Everard last Saturday. Police warned that the memorial would breach COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, however, as night fell, hundreds of mourners — mostly women — gathered, defying the ban, to pay tribute and to protest about violence against women.
Those who gathered lay flowers, lit candles and left cards, one of which read #IamSarah.
Many held placards, reading “she was just walking home” and “we will not be silenced”.
Other signs criticized the police and the lack of protection for women, reading “killed by the system we’re told protects” and “it is a privilege to believe the police will protect you”.
At around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, CBC reported that police descended onto Clapham Common bandstand, in which they attempted to force the crowds to go home. They were met with chants of “shame on you”.
Disturbing video footage and photographs have since circulated on the internet showing police using force against the peaceful protestors being pinned down, arrested and dragged away from the memorial site.
Since then, there have been calls for the U.K. police commissioner to resign due to the police response.
After Everard’s disappearance, thousands appealed on social media for information to help find her.
Women also began to share their experiences of being harassed, threatened, even attacked, or facing the everyday fear of violence simply when walking alone.
Journalist Gaby Hinsliff wrote in the Guardian, “When [Sarah] went missing, any woman who has ever walked home alone at night felt that grim, instinctive sense of recognition.”
The concerning sense of familiarity with the dangers of walking anywhere alone as a woman are what make Sarah’s story as impactful as it is tragic.
Everard’s murder case is happening against a background of increased gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, hand-in-hand with a recent survey conducted by UN Women UK which found that virtually all young women in the UK have been subjected to sexual harassment.
According to the survey, among women aged 18-24, 97% said they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.
“This is a human rights crisis. It’s just not enough for us to keep saying ‘this is too difficult a problem for us to solve’ – it needs addressing now,” said Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK.
But when this concern is expressed, often the onus is placed on women to resolve the violence that is against them. The conversation on the end of our male counterparts is silent, practically deafening.
Another United Nations study found that 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and that half of women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family.
Sexual violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of male domination. Violence perpetrated against women by men is as common a cause of death and incapacity for those of reproductive age and a greater cause of ill health than road accidents and malaria combined, according to the UN.
This can no longer be seen as a women’s problem. It’s time to broaden the discussion to men as well.
Carleton University Students’ Responses
With the overwhelming advocacy on social media, many Carleton students have taken the opportunity to share their stories, and spread awareness on the issue.
Speaking with three students on the Everard case, all could relate to the daily precautions they have to take as women to stay safe.
“You never know what might happen, even if you’re with someone you know. It’s difficult to trust being around strangers when you are alone as a woman,” says Adeline Travis, 20, a second-year psychology major.
“That possibility or chance that a situation might put you in danger is always in the back of my head when I’m out. It’s a constant thought that, even on a subconscious level, I’m sort of on alert for any threats.”
Third-year global development major Tiana Thomas, 20, has taken to Instagram to share her personal accounts of harassment and to advocate on the gravity of an issue that has become a scary reality for most women.
“What makes this story stand out so much is that Sarah did everything right: She wore bright clothes and running shoes, she was on the phone with her boyfriend, she walked on a route she was comfortable with that was well lit, and her friends knew that she was walking home. And despite all the precautions she took, this still happened to her.”
Thomas highlighted how, despite being victims, women still face resistance when speaking up: “This starts a separate conversation on victim-blaming, and how there has often been that very perpetual backlash often proposed by men in which in some way this is not about toxic masculinity.”
She also shared how several of her male peers found her story of being sexually harassed and exploited as comedic, rather than problematic. Thomas expressed infuriation and concern for feeling that her story – like so many other women — was not being taken seriously, and that she was speaking into an echo chamber.
“I am always afraid walking alone at night.” shares Emma O’Toole, 19, a second-year journalism major. For her, the fear is no longer a conscious thought.
“It’s a very real and very big part of being a woman. It’s second nature to me at this point. I tell myself: ‘okay, time to be alert now’. And it’s an unfortunate reality that needs to be addressed.”
All three women collectively shared their frustration, anger and fear on a matter that is so often overlooked. But it isn’t just these three, nor the hundreds of protestors for Sarah in the U.K. who share these feelings. This is the starking reality for the vast majority of women: sisters, mothers, friends, girlfriends — all have a not-so-pleasant story to tell.
Women need to be heard when sharing their stories.
Women should not have to worry about how they dress or whether or not they have drank in order to prevent being assaulted.
Women should not have to give themselves curfews, hold their keys between clenched fists, and debate what route to take when running or jogging.
Women should not have to worry when walking home at night of being murdered.
So as we celebrate International Women’s Month, the recent story of Sarah and the surging accounts brought forward by many women coincides with a terrible reminder of the dangers we face daily.
Not only is it a time to reflect upon the advances women have made over the decades, but also the time for an important discussion towards a much needed, fundamental change within our society.