As the days grew shorter in locked-down London this winter, it dawned on me that I could no longer take my daily after-work walk in the park.
I understood this as I took a solo trip outside in the gathering darkness and saw a man sitting silently on a bench I was about to pass. There was no one else in sight.
Every woman will recognise the feeling I had as I picked up my pace, heart clenching, hoping fiercely that nothing would happen. While this man — and most others — wasn’t a threat, being out alone after dark is a risk we are taught early that we shouldn’t take.
In the wake of Sarah Everard’s shocking disappearance on a busy road less than three kilometres from my home in south London, my Twitter feed has been awash with grief and fury from women, many recounting their experiences of harassment, stalking and assault while simply walking down the street.
The response from London’s Metropolitan Police after the 33-year-old vanished while walking from Clapham to Brixton at 9.30pm on March 3 was to tell women in the area not to go out alone.
Their advice is infuriating and the latest, exhausting example of blaming women when they are attacked, as we spend our lives making calculations about how to avoid rape or murder while simply existing in public.
Instead, some have asked, why not enforce an after-dark curfew on men?
Perhaps that seems unfair, a punishment inflicted on all men just for their gender, for the actions of a few. But women have been living with that exact restriction, an infantilising ban on venturing out alone, for our whole lives.
Assaults on both women and men are overwhelmingly carried out by men.
In Australia, the rate of police-recorded sexual assault was almost seven times as high for women as men in 2018, and 97 per cent of sexual assault offenders in 2018–19 were male.
A report from UN Women UK yesterday found that 97 per cent of 18-24-year-old women had been sexually harassed in public.
It came as police found human remains in a woodland in Kent and a member of the Met’s elite diplomatic protection branch was detained on suspicion of Sarah’s abduction and murder, amid claims he may have used his ID card to lure her into his car.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that he was “shocked and deeply saddened” by the case, while Home Secretary Priti Patel said the stories shared by women online were “powerful because each and every woman can relate”.
She said women “should feel safe to walk on our streets without fear of harassment or violence.”
Yet this has been said time and again, in the UK, Australia and around the world. Women continue to face a constant threat of violence that crushes our right to independent lives — one that has only worsened during the pandemic.
London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s response that, “As a father and husband it breaks me to think that my wife and daughter have to live in fear in their own city”, echoed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “as a father” remark about Brittany Higgins.
A tweet from another man asking what he could do to make women feel safer went viral. It was the response the women I knew wanted to hear.
During the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage in the 1970s, women who had been warned to cover up and not talk to strange men organised the UK’s first Reclaim the Night marches. They carried placards reading “No curfew on women — curfew on men” as they fought against having their freedom curtailed.
Little has changed. When Eurydice Dixon was killed in Melbourne’s Princes Park in 2018, there was an outpouring of anger at the police response that people needed to “take responsibility” for their own safety.
Women are still having to explain that it’s not us who need to adapt our behaviour. That even as we carry keys in our fists, learn self defence, avoid dark and quiet streets, take taxis — murders continue.
I remember being screamed at by a group of men in broad daylight all the way down a street as I walked to a friend’s house, arriving shaking and sweating from trying to outpace them. My sister was flashed in her school uniform on a busy road.
In 2015, after the killing of Masa Vukotic in a Melbourne park in daylight, police suggested women “shouldn’t be alone in parks”.
Most victims of assault are attacked by someone they know. As many have pointed out, we would have to stop having partners, sons, male friends and colleagues to avoid all risk. We would need to stop doing everything.
Sarah was walking home from meeting a friend on the well-lit South Circular — one of London’s busiest roads. At a time when UK residents have been told to avoid public transport and cabs because of Covid-19, she probably saw this as a responsible choice.
This weekend, the latest Reclaim These Streets vigil will take place at Clapham Common, near where Sarah disappeared. “This is a vigil for Sarah, but also for all women who feel unsafe,” said the organisers.
Relentlessly warning women to be alert to danger, or adding a few streetlights, is not the answer to preventing violence. We need real, deep change.
We need a world where International Women’s Day is not just tokenistic, where women do not need to fear sexual assault in Parliament, and female MPs don’t face bullying from self-styled “big swinging dicks”.
It’s about educating men and boys to see women as equals; changing how we respond and place blame; and building a culture that creates equal rights for women in the workplace, the family and society.
Either that, or a curfew for men.