For almost a decade, I have worked alongside survivors of some of the most horrifying crimes. Each and every story that I am trusted to write stays with me, etched into my mind and in some cases, my heart, forever. Every single case I have covered has left me feeling some level of sadness and anger for the people whose lives have been turned upside down, and sometimes destroyed completely, as a result of the most despicable kinds of people: Rapists, murderers, child abusers – the list goes on.
Sadly, I am no longer surprised by the harrowing stories I hear. Devastated and deeply unsettled, absolutely. But shocked? Surprised? Not anymore. This dawned on me as I read about the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Sarah Everard, who went missing after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, South London, last Wednesday evening.
Since the news of her disappearance made headlines, I have wept for Sarah. I have wept for the tragedy and sadness of it all, for the friends and relatives who are desperately clinging to the hope of good news – she is safe and well.
But we’ve been here before. Sarah isn’t the first, and sadly she won’t be the last woman to be targeted by a predator. We know how this goes. I have wept for the despicable audacity of any and every sick individual who thinks it perfectly acceptable behaviour to bring any kind of fear or harm to another person. The audacity of a monster targeting an innocent woman as she walks home from her friend’s house, not hurting or troubling anybody. I have wept for the horrifying, terrifying reality that Sarah never made it home.
Sarah was minding her own business. She was simply walking home.
She was doing nothing wrong. Not harming, not insulting or offending anybody.
In fact, Sarah did everything right. She followed the advice all women feel we need to embrace in order to keep ourselves safe when we’re alone. Sarah took a longer, brightly-lit route home from her friend’s house. She wore colourful, memorable clothing. She wore sensible shoes that she was capable of running in, should she need to. She talked to her boyfriend on the phone as she made her way home. And still, she never made it there.
But even if Sarah hadn’t done all of those things, she should have still made it home without being approached, catcalled, followed. Even if she had been scantily clad, taking the quickest route down a dark path without streelights, with both headphones in, loud music on blast, wearing stiletto heels. She should have still made it home safely. There is no room for debate.
We still don’t know for sure what happened to Sarah. The anticipation is agonising. I feel terribly sad for her loved ones. Their grief, I imagine, is immeasurable.
What we do know is that even in 2021, a year when equality is celebrated, women are not safe.
We can’t wear both headphones, or take a walk to clear our heads at night. We can’t wear anything remotely revealing without being told we’re ‘asking for it’, whatever ‘it’ is. We can’t hop into an Uber without feeling the need to send our friends a screenshot of the vehicle reg and driver’s name. We pin-drop our location. Sometimes, we pretend a loved one is eagerly awaiting our arrival at home. We feign phone calls. We strategise our escape route in case things turn sour. We carry keys between our fingers, our knuckles white, ready to fight for our lives. We feel we’re being followed, even when we’re not. We can barely hear ourselves think over the ringing in our ears, our pounding hearts, upon safely arriving at home. Safe until the next time we face the journey home.
Yesterday, a study revealed that 97% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed. Ninety seven per cent.
Almost every woman.
Yet even as we pore over these devastating statistics, there is a glaring lack of focus on those responsible, only on the act that happens to a woman. I almost feel apologetic. As if being sexually harassed is something I should have to say ‘I’m sorry’ for. As a society, we need to stop counting the number of women who are assaulted, harassed, raped or murdered. Instead, we should tally up the numbers of men who assault, harass, rape and murder the women they target. Only then can men understand how justified we are in fearing them all. Men seem to be outraged by the suggestion that all men are dangerous. Of course they’re not, but we can’t possibly spot a predator amongst the crowd. So, naturally, we’re cautious of them all.
We need to educate men. Only when they understand how suffocating it is to question whether or not it’s safe to walk home, whether or not we can wear both headphones and listen to our favourite music, whether or not we can go for a run at night – only then can they sympathise with the gut-wrenching fears we as women face every single day. We need to teach men to treat us with kindness and with sympathy. We need men to protect us, not prey on us. We also need a justice system that we can rely on, to make each and every woman walking alone feel safe. To allow us a life in which we can keep our keys in our pockets, and wear whatever the hell we want without inviting unwanted sexual advances. A life in which we can listen to our music as loudly and proudly as we wish – without the fear of being dragged into an alleyway and raped by an opportunistic stranger. The fact that the key suspect in Sarah Everard’s disappearance is a police officer with a history of previous offending does nothing to give us any confidence in the justice system. Who do we turn to, when those who are supposed to stand to defend us are the very people putting our lives at risk?
My heart aches for Sarah Everard, and for each and every woman who has felt scared for their safety whilst doing something as simple as walking home. We must all stand together for a safer future for ourselves and for the generations of women to come.