The recent kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard has again called into question the issue of women and their safety. A young woman walking home at 9pm, after visiting a friend, to then be savagely attacked and killed.
A recent survey by UN Women published the week beginning 8 March 2021 has revealed that 97% of women aged from 18-24 in the UK have been sexually harassed in public places. It's a harrowing statistic.
So, should women closet themselves away as night falls, treat every man as a potential threat, never risk dressing in a way that could be misconstrued as sexually provocative? That's no way to live and besides, not all attacks happen after dark. One recent suggestion, to curfew men after 6pm, is not a reasonable solution either.
I'm guessing many women of a certain age have past experience of unpleasant encounters; a hand on their leg or breast in a crowded place, a threatening look or comment, a feeling of being trapped. I certainly have. From walking into an office at my place of work and seeing pictures plastered on the walls which looked like gynie examinations, to having a black cab driver climb through the hatch to get at me, to being attacked walking home at night. Add in a few dodgy lifts home after nights out and it makes for some unnerving times.
But equally, there was the man who stopped and insisted on giving me a safe lift home as I walked alone late at night; I couldn't get a taxi. He said he hoped someone would do that for his girlfriend. Or, the many men who've supported and defended myself and women I knew from unwanted male attention.
There's so much focus on what women should do to protect themselves in order to minimise risk;
- Don't travel alone, and even share your taxi. Maybe stay overnight at your friend's, rather than risk travelling alone. Take the taxi's registration and even photograph the driver so that there's a record on your phone.
- Be careful when driving yourself to places. Ensure that the carpark is well-lit, both for when you're arriving and leaving.
- Have your keys in your hand. They make a good weapon and also enable you to enter home quickly.
- Be constantly alert when walking alone, checking behind, avoiding the use of earphones, not using dark pathways, watching out for rows of hedges and shadows. Many women report walking a longer route or even doubling back at times to find a better lit or busier route.
- Have your mobile phone in your hand so you can call if you're alarmed or deter someone by appearing to be already on a call. Agree to text your friend when you're safely home.
- And if something does happen, report it to the police!
But should women have to accept abuse as part of life, shrug it off as 'normal', have to adopt these safety guidelines, be careful how they dress, never venture out unaccompanied? What needs to happen for women to feel safe?
This is not about blaming or shaming women. It's important for boys and men to accept responsibility for their behaviour and be clear about their role in their community. Appropriate education comes from both home and school. As children, we learn from the behaviour being modelled by parents, teachers, friends, celebrities and we absorb it.
Speak to your boys and say to them;
- You don't need to 'man up' to be a man. Being tough, not communicating your feelings isn't healthy or a positive way to be. Learn to respect women and treat them how you'd like your mother, sister, aunts to be treated.
- Call it out. If you observe lewd behaviour, bullying, name-calling, derogatory language, stand up and say it's not okay. Too often bad behaviour is witnessed but then ignored, with no consequences. Choose not to stay silent.
- If you see a woman being hassled, bothered, in distress, go over and support her. Find out what she needs and offer to help.
- If you're walking behind a lone woman leave some distance between you and her, or even cross the road so that it's clear that you're not following her. Avoid walking at the same pace, as that can be unnerving.
- If you're out running, let her know of your presence from a little distance. Ensure she hears you coming by maybe saying a friendly 'hello' as you near, or even cross to the other side of the road.
- Keep your face uncovered, especially at night. Wearing a hoodie, mask, scarf, whilst wearing dark clothes can be a disconcerting sight.
- If a woman discloses to you that she's been attacked listen in a supportive way, whilst encouraging her to report it to the authorities. Her sharing of this will have taken a lot of trust and courage, so be respectful of that.
With 50.61% of the UK population being female (World Bank collection of development indicators, 2019) it's important to learn positive ways to co-exist. Let's find ways to value and enjoy each other's company.