Today, women around the world are grieving. We’re grieving following the story of yet another woman whose life hasn’t just been lost—it’s been violently taken from her. Once again, we’re confronted with violence against women—a woman who could have been any of us.
On March 3, 33-year-old Sarah Everard disappeared after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, south London. She wasn’t alone in a dark alley. She wasn’t drunk and getting into a stranger’s car. She followed the unspoken rules women are conditioned to believe will keep them safe: she walked the most well lit, busiest route, and even called her partner along the way to check in.
Women everywhere will know exactly what Sarah was thinking on that walk home. We know why she took the longer route along the well-lit streets, and why she called her partner along the way. She was doing these things because these are the things women do when we walk alone at night. These are the precautions we take, even though it shouldn’t be about precaution, it should be about men simply not raping or murdering women.
Following Sarah’s disappearance, a serving Metropolitan police officer was arrested on suspicion of her murder, with a woman also arrested on suspicion of assisting.
Police advised women in Clapham to not go out alone so they could be kept safe—a directive that not only comes when walking outside is one of the only forms of freedom (London is, of course, in lockdown), but one that pushes blame onto Sarah—that if she had just stayed home, this wouldn’t have happened. As always, the question being asked is how do women keep themselves safe, rather than how do we stop men from being perpetrators of violence?
This is, of course, commentary we know well. In 2018 when the body of 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon was found in Melbourne’s Princes Park after she’d been brutally murdered and raped, Australian police responded by telling women to be “mindful of their surroundings”, to “stay safe” by using “protective strategies.”
In 2021, ADF General Angus Campbell told first-year cadets to avoid drinking and going out alone if they look “attractive” as a means of protecting themselves, but the issue remains, as long as we continue to believe these are the means of protecting ourselves, those intent on harming us will continue to do so.
What police continually fail to recognise is that women will never truly be safe. These tactics that will supposedly keep us safe, don’t. The conversation we need to have when these acts of violence occur is “how do we stop violence against women?” but every time a woman is raped or murdered, that conversation gets drowned out by men.
For example, when the story prompted an outpouring from women online discussing their own experiences of walking alone at night, the hashtag #NotAllMen began to trend—with men outraged over women telling stories of feeling scared or afraid at night. The thread was filled with phrases of “I’m not the problem” and “only 1 out of 9 are the problem.”
This defensive stance from men is the problem. Every time women speak up about the systemic issue of violence against women, we’re drowned out by men who want to reaffirm that they are not rapists or murderers. And they’re not—but, as author Emma Burnell put it best in her now-viral Tweet: “We know it’s not all men but we absolutely don’t know which men it is.”
We need to collectively start having these conversations without defensiveness or derailment. Men need to listen and learn, step up and take a stand against violence.
It’s true what they say, if you’ve never had to feel afraid by the simple task of walking home under the dim light of street lamps, looking ahead for escape routes and walking at a slightly quicker pace, all while tiny hairs prickle your body when you see a dark figure in the distance: you’re a man.