Happy International Women’s Month! Let’s celebrate how far women have come and continue to empower women to know their values and share their stories! Let’s continue to fight for equality and amplify our accomplishments! Oh, wait. We can’t. Because the fact of the matter is, women are still not safe.
The recent news of 33-year-old Sarah Everard’s disappearance and potential murder after she was last seen walking home from a friend’s house at night on the 3 March has sent shockwaves across the UK. The tragedy has been made even more shocking at the announcement that a Metropolitan police officer is now a suspect for her murder. These revelations came the same day that the Guardian released data confirming that 97% of young women between the ages of 18-24 have been sexually harassed in the UK. As a young woman that falls under this category, all I can say is that I am not surprised.
But what has shocked me is waking up to a social media backlash to the Sarah Everard story that is trying harder to defend men from accusations of harassment than to address the true issue at hand: women’s safety. The trend that caught traction, captioned #notallmen, could not be more damaging. No, not every single man has assaulted or harassed a woman, but almost all women have experienced unwanted or unconsented pursuits from men. Sarah’s story has––not to our surprise––sparked yet again more conversations of victim-blaming, claiming that if women didn’t walk alone at night, they would be safe; herein lies the problem that burdens the women of our generation.
Why should women have to sacrifice their freedoms to avoid harm? Is the same asked of men? No. Why should I have to look behind me when I walk in the dark to check for potential predators? Why should my heart drop every time a man edges close to me on an empty street? Why is it that so many women feel impelled to carry keys between their fingers? Why do our parents caution us not to be alone and to make it home by a certain time? Why do we feel the need to call someone or share our locations when on a casual late-night walk? The answer is simple. Because women are not safe. But more importantly, because society has raised women into a culture that teaches them to internalise their own vulnerability. ‘Don’t walk alone at night,’ we are told. ‘Don’t wear clothes that are too revealing – you might get unwanted attention,’ they say. Don’t do this, don’t do that. When will we stop teaching women to anticipate being assaulted and teach men not to feel entitled to women’s bodies?
Too many women fear leaving their house alone at night at the chance that they could be attacked or harassed. Men, do these thoughts race through your mind before you leave a building? Do you prepare a mental checklist of all the things to do if you feel under threat before going out? Because I can assure you, almost every single woman you know has.
The problem is rooted in patriarchal projections of women as objects for the taking. It’s the same kind of discourse that creates rape culture, or that justifies the actions of men based on the clothing or physical appearance of women. Think of how many times women have been accused of ‘asking for it’ because they were wearing ‘provocative’ clothing. Think of the countless women that have felt powerless to speak out about their stories of harassment due to fear of being blamed. Then think about how many times a guy has inappropriately sexualised you or made a comment or joke that made you feel uncomfortable. See the correlation? Society is quite literally telling women that they are responsible for their own experiences of abuse or assault because it is so normalised for men to take advantage of women and not face the consequences. While women are raised to think twice before going out after dark, men have the privilege to go where they please without having to prepare for the worst.
Men must do better. And that is not to say that every man is guilty of assault, but most are guilty of perpetuating a culture that prevents women from being truly free. Men must start calling out misogyny when they see it. It is not just women’s problem to solve. So many of these instances of violence stem from a ‘lad culture’ which reproduces the ideological perception of women as inferior, weaker, sexualised beings. We need men to call out their friends when they crack inappropriate, objectifying jokes. We need men to stand up for women when women aren’t in the room. We need men to come face to face with their own privilege. ‘Boys will be boys,’ they say. But it is this kind of thinking that poses an everyday threat to the lives, safety, and mental health of women. When will we hold boys accountable for their actions instead of painting women as the perpetrators of their own assault?
We all could have been Sarah Everard, which is why so many women resonate with her tragedy. There have been countless stories like Sarah’s, and you can bet that there are many more stories like Sarah’s to come. She was just walking home. She did everything ‘right,’ yet here we are.
This is not just a women’s issue, this is a human rights crisis. Equality for women is not just as simple as equal pay or fair representation. It’s not just women going into the workplace or being found in CEO roles. Equality is women being able to wear what they want without being presumed as ‘asking for it.’ Equality is walking in front of a man on the street at night and not having to wonder if they are following you. Equality is women having the same freedom of movement as men without fearing for their safety. The reaction to Sarah’s disappearance only reminds us of how deep-rooted misogyny still is in the UK. Until women feel safe leaving their homes, or feel empowered to share their stories without fearing being blamed for their own traumas, there is still so much more work to be done.