The recent death of Sarah Everard was tragic for various reasons, but mostly because she was an ordinary woman going about her own business walking home on the streets of London after visiting a friend. Something all of us should feel comfortable doing, but it was not possible on that evening, because a man, a police officer at that, chose to abduct her, murder her, and then dispose of her body some 65 miles away in woodland. What makes it even more chilling for me, is that her killer worked for a while as a police officer in my borough of London at a time when my daughter would have been walking home through dark streets. Of course we do not yet have the facts of what happened after she disappeared off CCTV in Clapham and subsequent events. But it is a fear nearly every women will admit to having when walking along streets in the dark. The outpouring of solidarity among women over the last few days and the conversations started amongst friends or on social media shows that this has been festering for too long. We have all had experiences where we have been grabbed or molested by strangers, carried keys in our hands as some form of protection should we be attacked, or felt a chill down our spine when we have heard quickened footsteps behind us and, turning, seen a man following far too close and far too quickly.
I hasten to add that I do not include myself in the wave of anti-men hysteria that seems to be building. It is not all men. It is not even most men. It is a random minority who for some reason think It is OK to behave like this. Most men are just as likely to be vulnerable on a dark street as a woman, but for different reasons.
We all have our own stories. I can remember at the age of 12 coming home on the bus from school. My grammar school was a good 4 miles away from home and I had to take a 40-minute bus journey to get there and back. One afternoon, on the way home, a very fat man came and sat beside me blocking me in. He half sat over me. He then proceeded to fold his arms and with the hand nearest to me started to fondle me. Even at the age of 12, I knew this was wrong. If it were now, I would have probably yelled at him so loudly that the whole bus could hear, but then I was young and timid and very scared. I felt the best thing to do was get off the bus straight away and catch the next one. Unfortunately, he got off the bus with me and tried to chat with me at the bus stop. I remember being petrified, but somehow I kept my wits about me and as soon as the next bus appeared (it wasn't even going where I wanted to go) I hopped on and left him standing there. I told my mum about it when I got home, but of course in those days, it was just notched up as bad luck and not reported. It was a different world then and we did not have social media or anything like that to alert us to these things or report them. There have been countless times since when I have walked home late alone and quickened my pace and heaved a sigh of relief when my key was in my door. The thought of what might happen is always there. In a supposedly civilised society, we should not need to think like that.
Kay tells of an incident at university when she was walking along the road one evening, a group of men were walking towards her and, as she passed, one of them just reached out and indecently grabbed her breast, so much so it hurt. They all thought it was funny as they went on their way. I am sure there are thousands of similar stories we women could all tell of things that have happened on the street, or even at work, which have been inappropriate. Many is the time I have sat up till 2am waiting for my daughter to come home from a night out with her friends and met her at the station or the night bus stop with my car, rather than let her walk down our road alone. I wonder if I would be less worried if I had a son?
I am not sure what the answer is. As I say, most men are decent and aware of these issues, but how do you stop those dangerous few? What is it that makes them like that in the first place - a loveless childhood, misogyny, looking at too much porn which debases women, a row with a partner? And how do you police every street in every town and village to make women feel more safe?
The first thing that would help, I think, is to have more CCTV, although it is impossible to cover everywhere, but maybe in addition we should ALL be more aware of a single woman walking alone and keep a distant eye on her if we are near or looking out of our windows. The other thing is for parents to teach their sons that women are not objects of violence and to teach them to be more aware of what that single woman walking in front of them might feel if they get too close. Crossing over to the other side of the road, would indicate that they are not a threat and respect their distance. Little things like that would help. Women should ensure they have an SOS on their mobile to press if they feel threatened and not wearing earphones when walking alone would help them be more aware of their surroundings.
I was upset to see that many women were arrested at the Clapham Common vigil on Saturday for staging a vigil for Sarah Everard. I can see both sides of the argument. Women just wanted to express their sadness and anger over her death. At the same time, they were breaching lockdown rules and the police were trying to break up a mass protest for their health and safety. I meanwhile lit a candle at the appointed time and stood in my window along with other neighbours both to express my sadness that another life has been snuffed out pointlessly and to thank God it wasn't my daughter.