A woman walking on a street alone in the dark

Sarah Everard: How do women access public space?

Corina Pickering, Partnerships Manager at Restless Development Sierra Leone writes about her experiences of sexual harassment in public spaces and persistent victim blaming in response to the disappearance of Sarah Everard, a 33 year old social media executive on her walk home in South London. 

If you, as a man, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our women do in this society, please stand.

Are you standing? I’d be surprised if you were.

That’s because…

  • 97% of women say they have been sexually harassed
  • 1 in 4 women in the UK are raped or seriously sexually assaulted in their life
  • British women do more chores – on average almost 40% more than men
  • Women hold 7% of Fortune 500 CEO roles, are 29% of MPs and 25% of judges, and are half as likely to be a manager, director or senior official

The unsettling and tragic disappearance of Sarah Everard after she walked home from a friend’s house at 9pm last Wednesday is sending waves of fear through the country. As British women, we’ve all walked alone after dark and felt fearful. We’ve all heard the stories, and many of us know someone who has had, or have experienced ourselves, a scary incident on our streets. As children, our parents, usually our mums, would tell us how to reduce our chances of assault or harassment – put our keys in between our fingers, pretend to be on the phone, make sure someone always knows where we are.

I have a vivid memory of being around 17 years old, still at school, walking 10 minutes home from my friends house for dinner at around 6pm. I noticed a man walking behind me. I sped up, and he sped up too. I was petrified. I called my mum and said I needed her to come and meet me because there’s a man following me. A long minute or two later, my mum appeared, sprinting around the corner, and the man turned up a road away from us. My heart was thumping, my mum was fretting, and it took me time to realise that it wasn’t my fault for walking somewhere alone, and that this wasn’t an isolated, uncommon incident and wasn’t considered serious.

Since I was a child as young as 13 in high school, my friends and I have been catcalled, walking home from school in our school uniforms. To this day, I ignore them, and I try not to let it get into my head, but it can really ruin an otherwise nice day. 

The issues here are gendered, and alarmingly so. It doesn’t mean that men can’t be catcalled, or that no man is afraid of walking for 10 minutes alone at 6pm, or that men can’t be harmed. It means that women are being disproportionately affected by certain things – sexual harassment, sexual assault, and lost opportunities.

Honestly, I’m tired. I’m tired of being fearful. I’m tired of explaining why I’m fearful. I’m tired of hearing “but what about men”. I’m tired of not knowing if this will ever end.

But, we keep on keeping on. The narrative needs to change – it can’t be about our personal responsibility as women to stop it happening to us anymore, we need men to be part of the change.

So, if you’re a man wondering “what can I do?”, I have five things for you:

  1. Please speak up about this. There are lots of posts you can share – share them publicly and share them with your private groups. Talk to your male friends about this incident and beyond, and call them out when you need to.
  2. Talk to the women in your life (this can be a scary time for us when we hear a big, public story that affirms our worst fears) – see how they’re doing and listen to them if they want to talk.
  3. Follow a load of women/accounts who are talking about this issue – this conversation continues before and after it leaves the mainstream media, so keep engaging in it and keep listening.
  4. Read some stuff – I always recommend The Power by Naomi Alderman, it’s dystopian fiction and a gripping read about women ruling the world. I also recommend Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – a very short read but good.
  5. Do some internal reflection about your own life and what you may be doing that contributes to the oppression of women. For example, do you shop at places that exploit women overseas, or watch porn on a pornsite known for showing videos of women being assaulted? Identify these things, fix them, and then encourage other men to do the same.

Be part of the change, not against it. Support, speak up, and listen.


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Sarah Everard: How do women access public space?

by wearerestless Reading time: 3 min