'She was just walking home': the impact of Sarah Everard's murder

9 July 2021, 16:54 | Updated: 9 July 2021, 17:31

By Fiona Jones

Sarah Everard, 33, was tragically raped and murdered in March 2021. The incident sent powerful waves throughout the country, shining a spotlight on male violence. Five words dominated the national conversation: she was just walking home.

Today is a landmark moment in Sarah Everard's case, as Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens has pleaded guilty to her murder.

He snatched her as she walked home from a friend's house in Clapham, driving her away in a car he hired.

A week later, Sarah's body was found in woodland near Ashford, Kent, metres from land owned by her murderer.

The night of her disappearance she was doing everything that females walking alone are "meant to do"; she wore bright clothing, called her partner while walking and stuck to main streets with lighting... yet still she was unsafe.

The incident shone a light on the collective fear felt by many, with an outpouring of women sharing on Twitter their experiences walking home alone, including abuse, harassment, stalking and catcalling.

Call the Midwife actress Jennifer Kirby's Tweet went viral: "The problem with telling us that most men aren’t dangerous, and don’t mean us harm, is that, while that’s true, we have no way of telling which ones do mean us harm.

"And it only takes one. Meaning it falls upon us to be on the lookout, every day, all the time."

This Twitter user was also supported by many: "'Text me when you get home safe' is something I say to women I know before we part ways, and I’ve never thought about it.

"[What] I’m actually saying is that I worry something awful might happen to them and I won’t stop worrying until I know they’re safe. It shouldn’t be this way."

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon joined the conversation, sharing a thread which highlighted the everyday strategies women implement in order to try and protect themselves.

She told her followers that there will be few, "if any", women who do not understand and identify with this.

Nimco Ali, the government's adviser on violence against women and girls, told LBC: "I have to think of all men as attackers."

She said that the onus must be on men to be aware of the effects their behaviour has on women walking alone: "I can't sit there and try to assess which guy is the good guy and which one is not - it's for you guys to change your behaviour and the way you act in public spaces."

Read more: Twelve officers investigated in relation to Sarah Everard killer Wayne Couzens' case

Countless women called in to LBC and shared their own terrible experiences of male violence, with some being compelled to talk about it out loud for the first time.

One survivor Lucille explained how she was pinned to wall by her throat by her perpetrator, he threw her to the floor which broke her arm, "then he decided to grab my hair and smash that into the flooring twice."

"He then went to the kitchen and got a great big knife and threatened to kill me with it," she told Shelagh Fogarty.

Four months after she was beaten she developed an incurable skin condition, Lupus, which impacts her life to an extreme extent.

She went to the police seven months after the abuse in 2020 - yet the case was not taken to court as "he lied about a witness in his statement."

"There is never a witness there when a woman is being abused," Lucille said.

Another survivor of male sexual violence Julie opened up, telling Shelagh that from the age of 8 her brother, 15, began sexually abusing her.

She said: "I still now look at people who have an older brother and I think, just because it was almost so normal for that to happen to me, I just assume that something must have happened when they were children. The brother must have done something to the sister because that just happens.

She told Shelagh,"I only spoke about it two years ago, but absolutely nobody knew up until that point," she said, "it's always been pushed to the back of my mind to the point where I still had a relationship with my brother, seeing him civilly."

"I had a massive break down when I came out about it to the point I was ready to self-harm...apparently my dad knew about it.

"This needs to be elevated on to a platform. Boys need to be taught that little girls are not their playthings."

As well as compelling women to speak out, the case of Sarah Everard also became a focal talking point in the Commons.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer branded it a watershed moment which, like the cases of Stephen Lawrence and Jamie Bulger, has shone a light on an ugly aspect of our society.

Sir Keir said: "The awful events of the last week have lifted a veil on the epidemic of violence against women and girls.

"This must be a watershed moment to change how we as a society change how we treat women and girls, and how we prevent and end sexual violence and harassment.

"Does the Prime Minister agree that this must be a turning point in how we tackle violence against women and girls?"

Boris Johnson agreed that the "appalling" case of Sarah Everard would be a turning point.

He said: "That event has trigged a reaction that is wholly justified and of course we in Government are doing everything we can.

"We are investing in the CPS trying to speed up law, we're changing the law on domestic violence and many many other things.

"Unless and until we have a change in our culture that acknowledges and understands that women currently do not feel they are being heard, we will not fix this problem.

"We need to make cultural and social change in attitudes to readdress the balance."

Home Secretary Priti Patel dedicated a speech to Sarah Everard's case in the House of Commons, resolving to make all women and girls feel safe "walking our streets."

She said: "My heartache and that of others can be summed up in just five words: she was just walking home.

"While the specific circumstances of Sarah's disappearance are thankfully uncommon, what has happened has reminded women everywhere of the steps that we take each day without a second thought to keep ourselves safe.

"Too many of us have walked home from school or work alone, only to hear footsteps uncomfortably close behind us. Too many of us have pretended to be on the phone to a friend to scare someone off. Too many of us have clutched our keys in our fist in case we need to defend ourselves."

Green Party peer Baroness Jenny Jones even suggested men should adhere to a 6pm curfew in order to keep women safe in "a moment of despair."

In reaction to her confirmed death, hundreds flocked to Clapham Common for a vigil to pay their respects to Sarah Everard on 13 March.

Despite being a largely peaceful event opposing male violence, there were arrests and Patsy Evans, 28, was held down and handcuffed by two officers during the gathering.

Public outcry and accusations that the officers oppressed women led to an investigation of police conduct at the event.

The Justice Inspectorates found that police acted appropriately at the vigil, however "public confidence in the Metropolitan Police suffered as a result of the vigil, and...a more conciliatory response after the event might have served the Met’s interests better."

Read more: 'I was shocked at the police aggression', attendee of Sarah Everard's vigil tells LBC

With murderer and rapist Wayne Couzens admitting guilt for the death of the 33 year old, the conversation around male violence and female safety has reemerged.

Shelagh Fogarty predicted that while it is a step in the right direction experiences are being discussed, it could take a whole generation for culture to evolve.

Violence against women campaigners and survivors have told LBC on multiple occasions that the only real way to transform our society is through educating boys and young men to respect girls and women as equals.

But the ultimate consensus of all people who have spoken on LBC, whether that be an older male caller from Maidstone, or a teenage girl calling from Dundee: things do have to change.

And Sarah Everard's case has truly highlighted this.

If you have been affected by any of the issues highlighted, please call the Rape & Sexual Abuse Support Centre on
0808 802 9999 or 0208 683 3311.