From a young age, women are taught how to “stay safe”. We are told to avoid going out at night by ourselves. We have a strongly worded conversation with our parents about not walking through parks at any time of the day if we are alone. We are urged, mainly by our female friends, to not ride in a taxi or Uber alone. Never walk on the side of the pavement closest to bushes and undergrowth, our relatives insist, and always stick to well-lit streets and wear brightly coloured clothing.
All of this has been ingrained in women for as long as we can remember. These unofficial rules and regulations are a part of our everyday lives and will remain to be so, unless there are drastic changes.
Women have been doing everything right, yet we continue to lose.
She was just walking home
The disappearance and death of Sarah Everard while she walked through Clapham on March 3 gives horrific shape to the hum of fear that women always feel in public spaces. Over the past week, our social media timelines have been and continue to be full of women distressed at Sarah’s disappearance and sharing their own stories which could have had a similar outcome. Some men have rallied and shown their support for women, with some asking what they can do to help women feel safer. Although the education of individuals is vital, what is needed is urgent political solutions to prevent men from claiming public spaces as their domain.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that, in light of this horrendous incident, the government will double its Safer Streets fund to £45m, which provides for things like better lighting and CCTV. The PM has also proposed that plain clothes police officers could patrol bars and nightclubs around the country to protect women. But, will increased lighting and ‘undercover’ police officers solve this widespread issue?
The fear that all women feel in public spaces is so common that it is considered, by many, a fact of life. This fear is grounded in the knowledge that harassment can precede assault or, in some cases, murder. There is no way for women to know if a catcall will escalate to a worst-case scenario, so every cat-calling man is regarded as a potential murderer or rapist in the interest of our own safety.
Male-dominated spaces need to be a thing of the past
Street harassment is how men mark out public spaces as their own in an attempt to make women feel like trespassers in their own territory. For many years, behavioural psychologists have investigated ‘interpersonal distances’ – the space that we grant one another as we move around. The psychologists have observed that male pedestrians are given a wider berth by both male and female passers-by. It has also been noted that male pedestrians tend to crowd women’s personal space at cashpoints and traffic lights.
This is not a new problem, albeit one that neither gender is always fully aware of; but even today by harassing and abusing women, men make public spaces their own. Despite this, the onus still falls on women to prevent these behaviours and actions.
We are advised to hold our keys between our fingers, avoid listening to music and yell “fire” rather than “rape” as the former is taken more seriously. Society has deemed it more sensible to tell women what to do to for their own safety rather than telling boys and men not to harass, assault or rape. The responsibility of preventing male violence continues to fall on women’s shoulders.
A recent survey from UN Women UK found that among women aged 18-24, 97% said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 percent of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. When the survey results were made public earlier this month, they were met with shock, ridicule, contempt and disbelief. Many people on social media deemed the statistics as “inaccurate” and that they beggared belief. Little do these people know, this is the reality women face. People (especially men) can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening all around them because if they do, it will be to the detriment of women.
Show solidarity, not ignorance
Women know that it is a minority of men who rape and murder women, but when we are out in public or even in an unfamiliar space, how are we supposed to know the difference?
NotAllMen is a pathetic response to recent events and diminishes the hardships women face every single day of our lives. Responding with “well, it’s not all men” or posting #NotAllMen on social media completely undermines what women need – solidarity and support. We cannot do this alone, we need support, respect and understanding from men in order to make real change.
What is missing from this ongoing discussion of women’s fears is a focus on men. We need solutions that go beyond the behaviour of an individual. One man crossing the street to make a woman feel safer is not going to solve this age-old issue overnight.
Talk to the men in your life – your family, friends, colleagues. Address what needs to be changed and how you can support and respect women in light of what has happened in recent weeks. It should not have taken a woman’s death for this to occur, but it has – so now it’s time for men to step up.
For many years, women have lost, and we continue to lose. But changes are desperately needed so for once, we can win.