Why the divisive reaction to Sarah Everard's disappearance is so important

Marie Claire Dorking
·9-min read
There has been a divisive response to Sarah Everard's disappearance. (Getty Images)
There has been a divisive response to Sarah Everard's disappearance. (Getty Images)

The disappearance of Sarah Everard has sparked an intense, yet divisive, reaction about women’s safety and what needs to be done to help women feel more comfortable when getting home.

The 33-year-old marketing assistant went missing while walking home to Brixton from a friend’s house in Clapham last Wednesday night.

Her last known whereabouts were captured on Poynders Road, where she was seen on a residential doorbell camera.

A serving Metropolitan Police officer has since been arrested on suspicion of her murder, and while investigations are still ongoing, it has been revealed that human remains have been found in Kent.

The shocking news has brought the issue of women’s safety on the streets into the spotlight, particularly on social media, but the reaction has been somewhat divided.

Many women have been sharing stories of times they have felt unsafe in a public space and the precautions they take in order to make themselves feel safer, such as holding their keys in their hands, changing into flat shoes so they can run and taking the long route to avoid poorly lit areas.

Read more: Police force advises women not to exercise alone

And men have also been heading to social media to ask what they can do to adapt their behaviour in order to help women feel more comfortable and less threatened.

But others have swayed towards something resembling victim blaming, admonishing Everard and other women for putting themselves in harms way in the first place and putting the onus on them to change their behaviour and not walk home late at night, or in poorly lit areas or wearing certain clothes.

It was reported by The Sun that while investigating Everard's disappearance the Met police had warned women in Clapham not to go out alone, prompting many to reflect on why women should be expected to change their behaviour in order to feel safe.

Women have been sharing stories about feeling afraid while walking home alone. (Getty Images)
Women have been sharing stories about feeling afraid while walking home alone. (Getty Images)

A Women's Equality Party member wrote on Twitter that this approach created a culture of blaming victims rather than perpetrators.

"Women in my area have been advised 'not to go out alone' while Sarah Everard's disappearance is investigated," Georgia Ladbury tweeted.

"How about we urge men not to go out instead? Say a curfew at nightfall? Perhaps we'd see more done about street safety if it were men losing their freedoms, not women."

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The tweet has since been liked more than 52K times, and received thousands of comments with many agreeing with the sentiment.

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Andrea Simon, Director of End Violence Against Women (EVAW) says that, as with all acts of violence against women, we need solutions that target the behaviour of perpetrators, not those which focus on the actions of women who are attacked.

"The grief and distress from women reacting to what happened to Sarah Everard shows just how differently women experience public space compared to men," she tells Yahoo UK.

"The fact that the public conversation has for so long revolved around what actions women must take to ‘keep themselves safe’ rather than what drives perpetrators is really worrying, and only fuels a ‘victim blaming’ culture.

"We’re always talking about how women ‘safety plan’ - text their friends in advance, walk with their keys in their hands, avoid empty tube carriages or poorly lit areas.

"But we rarely hear about what drives perpetrators to harm women and what needs to be put in place to stop this behaviour."

Read more: Women share how they protect themselves while out running

If recent statistics are anything to go by, the fear of being attacked while walking home alone is very real.

According to a survey from UN Women UK 97% of women aged 18-24 said they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.

"In this week alone we've seen the horrifying case of Sarah Everard, as well as new statistics showing that 80% of all women and 97% young women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces," Laura Bates founder of the Everyday Sexism Project and author of Men Who Hate Women tells Yahoo UK.

"Women's collective outpouring of anger, grief and frustration shows that these are abuses we all live with, dangers that affect our daily lives, our freedom, our ability to exercise, our mental health, yet in spite of outcry after outcry, nothing is done.

"Instead of recognising this epidemic of misogynistic violence, we tell women to stay at home, not to wear short skirts, to be more careful.

"The mainstream media even today has accused women of overreacting and being hysterical. The police have insisted that 'women are safe', told women to stay at home, and treated this like an isolated incident. But it isn't.

"Instead of victim blaming that excuses perpetrators and does nothing to solve the problem, we need real action. That means educating boys about consent and sexism, tackling institutional sexism and racism in the police and judiciary, and bringing in greater penalties for street harassment and abuse."

Watch: Timeline of Sarah Everard's disappearance.

Rose Caldwell, CEO for Plan International UK agrees that more needs to be done to ensure women feel safer.

“All women and girls should feel safe in public spaces, yet they still continue to face harassment every day. They’re being followed, shouted at, touched and groped – and it needs to stop.

"That is why our #CrimeNotCompliment campaign with Our Streets Now, calls upon the government to establish a clear law that criminalises all forms of public sexual harassment and protects the rights of girls to a life lived without fear.

“Currently, there is no UK law that fully criminalises public sexual harassment, leaving perpetrators to get away with it. As one girl told us, you can be fined for dropping litter in the UK, but not for harassing a woman or girl in public. This cannot be right. Only by enacting legal change will we start to see a cultural shift, so that girls and women will finally begin to feel safe in public spaces.”

Read more: 'A third' of women have experienced sexual harassment at tech conferences

Sarah Everard's disappearance has brought women's safety to the fore. (Posed by models, Getty Images)
Sarah Everard's disappearance has brought women's safety to the fore. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

Until these potential changes are brought in, it seems some women are taking matters into their own hands in a bid to reclaim their safety.

On Saturday a vigil has been organised in a bit to shine a light on the issue of women's safety and make London's streets safe for women.

The Facebook event titled ‘Reclaim These Streets’, was set up after Sarah Everard went missing while walking home last week.

In a description for the event, the organisers said: "We believe that streets should be safe for women, regardless of what you wear, where you live or what time of day or night it is.

“We shouldn’t have to wear bright colours when we walk home and clutch our keys in our fists to feel safe.

"It’s wrong that the response to violence against women requires women to behave differently. In Clapham, police told women not to go out at night this week. Women are not the problem."

Another campaigner has set up a Change.org petition calling for better street lighting around Clapham common to improve safety in the wake of Everard's disappearance.

"With the recent and ongoing events surrounding the disappearance of Sarah Everard in Clapham, the question of safety for not only ourselves but our friends, families and the community as a whole is at the forefront of our minds," the petition reads.

"The common is heavily populated throughout the day however for those trying to utilise it after working hours, they are forced to use the common in complete darkness (as most of the common has little to no lighting)."

Despite differing views about what needs to be done to ensure people feel safer, it's clear from the response that women are scared, and many men are scared for the females in their lives.

So now is the time to unite, fight for change and help make the streets safer for everyone.

Because we've all been Sarah Everard, or have a friend or sister just like her.

Watch: Sarah Everard: Police continue to search site where body was found.