Sarah Everard: Women share how they've been forced to change their behaviour

11 March 2021, 10:14 | Updated: 11 March 2021, 17:09

Sarah Everard vanished last week - and a police officer has been arrested on suspicion of her murder
Sarah Everard vanished last week - and a police officer has been arrested on suspicion of her murder. Picture: PA
Rachael Kennedy

By Rachael Kennedy

Scores of women have revealed their personal routines for feeling safe in public in the wake of Sarah Everard's disappearance - but it has also raised the question as to why these routines have to exist in the first place.

Ms Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive from London, went missing last Wednesday as she was walking home from a friend's house in Clapham just after 9pm.

A serving Metropolitan Police officer was later arrested on suspicion of her murder, along with another woman for assisting a suspected offender.

On Wednesday, human remains were found in a woodland area in Kent. Met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said identification could take "considerable time".

These tragic updates have since drawn floods of reaction from women all across the UK, many of whom have noted how common sense on the streets forces women to be wary of every man they pass.

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

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, she added that the onus should be shifted to men to be aware of the effects their behaviour may have on a young woman out walking along.

She said: "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."

And Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirral South and Shadow Minister for Culture and Sport, told LBC that it is not women's job to "deal with" men's behaviour.

"We feel like, as women, it's just our job to allow other people to do this sort of thing to us and I think you get that to that point where you're like 'actually no, this is not OK'," the MP told Shelagh Fogarty.

"And I think that's the important issue we've got to see. It's not our job to deal with the fact that men try to get our attention more.

"They want that from us and actually we've got to really assert these boundaries in society."

Others on social media have also commented on how Ms Everard had followed "all the rules", essentially an unwritten female code for being streetwise, before she vanished.

"She did everything we're supposed to do to stay safe; covered her body, stuck to main streets, called her partner," said Twitter user Melinda Salisbury. "She was just walking home."

Another added: "Sarah Everard kept to all the 'rules' that society has set out for women to stay safe and she still wasn't able to walk home safely. We need to stop blaming the victim."

The online conversation soon expanded to women sharing accounts of their rules and experiences of walking alone after dark.

Many of these tactics cropped up time and again, which include wearing bright clothes, walking on well-lit streets, keeping keys in the hand, and staying hyper-alert to any passers-by.

"Every woman you know has taken a longer route," said Doughty Street barrister Harriet Johnson. "[Every woman] has doubled back on herself. Has pretended to dawdle by a shop window. Has held her keys in her hand. Has made a fake phone call. Has rounded a corner and run.

"Every woman you know has walked home scared. Every woman you know."

READ MORE: Human remains found in search for missing woman

Call the Midwife actress Jennifer Kirby added: "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."

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also joined the topic, tweeting that there would be few, "if any," women who were unfamiliar with the sense of unease while out alone.

Sharing a Twitter thread which highlighted the banality of Ms Everard's safety calculations, she added that this was "everything we need to know".

READ MORE: Timeline of 33-year-old’s disappearance as human remains found

On Thursday, results of a UN Women UK survey revealed nearly all young women in the country had been sexually harassed, with percentages as high as 97% of all women aged 18-24.

"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.

"We are looking at a situation where younger women are constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked, and older women are reporting serious concerns about personal safety if they ever leave the house in the dark – even during the daytime in winter."

Apparently hearing this call, one man's Twitter account went viral when he asked women online what he and others could do to encourage a better sense of safety.

"If a woman is walking towards you, let her stay in her path and get out of her way rather than making her move," suggested author Julie Cohen.

"I consciously walk in the safest part of the path with access to light/exits and so many times a man has forced me to walk between him and a wall."

Sara Lee, a PR business owner, added: "Walk your friends home no matter how safe you may perceive the route, cross road if you’re walking behind a lone female and discuss with your male friends, I still don’t think men have any comprehension of how scary it can be walking alone at night as a female."

Thanking the original Twitter user for asking, Reporters Without Borders international campaigns director Rebecca Vincent said: "The fact that you’re aware & asking this is fantastic. Talk to other men about it, as many are oblivious.

"If you witness even low-key harassment, call it out. Everyone pretends not to notice the creeps making women uncomfortable.

It only emboldens them and normalises the behaviour."

Ms Ali, meanwhile, who is Somali, stressed to LBC that "you have to have the conversations" with men about their behaviour, giving examples from her own community.

"I come from a community where men don't believe that women are equal to other men. When I had day-to-day conversations with my brothers about those issues, I have been sat in rooms where other boys have made jokes and my brothers have corrected them.

"So the reality is it's not for women to be doing this work, it's for men to be doing the work."

Labour former minister and Mother of the House Harriet Harman has criticised Dame Cressida Dick's comments regarding the disappearance of Sarah Everard.

In a Commons debate marking International Women's Day, Ms Harman said: "This International Women's Day debate comes in the shadow of the menace of male violence against women."

She continued: "Women will find no reassurance at all in the Metropolitan Commissioner's statement that, and I quote, 'it is extremely rare for a woman to be abducted off the street'.

"Women know abduction and murder is just the worst end of a spectrum of everyday male threat to women. When the police advise women don't go out at night on their own, women ask why do they have to be subjected to an informal curfew?

"It is not women who are the problem here, it is men, and the criminal justice system fails women and lets men off the hook. Whether it is rape or whether it is domestic homicide, women are judged and blamed."

Ms Harman added: "So, let's hear no more false reassurances, let's have action.”

MPs also listened in silence as Labour MP Jess Phillips read out the names of almost 120 women killed in the UK where a man has been convicted or charged as the primary perpetrator.

MPs normally have 3 minutes to speak in these debates, but Phillips was given an exemption to this in order to read all the names. The list went on for more than 4 and a half minutes.

SNP MP Kirsty Blackman said: "We should not be waiting until somebody is murdered before taking their voices seriously."