The horrific murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 led to a massive outrage among the public and brought the issue of ‘women’s safety’ in the national spotlight. Sarah was abducted, raped and murdered by a stranger. Fast-forward to September 2021, another incident of femicide took place in South London with the murder of a primary school teacher, Sabina Nessa. Last year, in June 2020, sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Shallman were murdered by a stranger.
A common thread between these women, apart from the fact that they were allegedly murdered by male strangers, is that these women were killed in apparently ‘safe conditions’. Sarah followed a number of protocols that are often issued to most women: she walked along the main road, at a relatively early hour of 21.00 and wore supposedly ‘decent clothes. She trusted a policeman, a person who we are told to seek out when we are in danger. In the case of Sabina, she was on her way to meet a friend for a drink on a Friday evening at 20.30 BST. It was supposed to be a 5-minute walk through a well-used public park. Ms Henry and Ms Shallman even followed the theory of ‘safety in numbers’ as they were walking together when they were stabbed multiple times in a public park.
Some days after Ms Nessa’s killing, a community group handed out information sheets printed from the Met’s website, “giving tips for staying safe on the street”. In order to keep themselves safe, women are told not to wear headphones. They are told to hide their valuables and stick to busy places. They are asked to walk where there is good lighting and pre-book their taxis.
Detective Chief Superintendent Lawry said, “of course women “should” be able to walk around free from fear. And of course, the problem is with the men who murder them rather than the women wearing headphones. Women should not have to modify their behaviour in order to not be attacked or abducted or raped or killed.”
But “worrying about our safety is an integral part of our existence as women,” said Kelly Grehan, a director of ’50:50 Parliament’, a cross-party campaign group promoting gender equality.
“It is drummed into us from a young age that our actions determine our safety: when we were only allowed to go in public toilets in pairs, given rape alarms at secondary school and told we were ‘asking for it’ or ‘jailbait’ when we tried to dress like the pop stars we idolised before some of us had even started menstruating.”
Instead of holding men accountable for their actions, women or victims are asked to ‘take care of their safety on streets’. After the killings of Everard and Nessa, the government and several other institutions took several actions to ensure ‘women’s safety’. One of the “immediate steps” taken by the Prime Minister’s office aimed at the safety of women is an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV as well as a pilot scheme which would see plain-clothes officers in pubs and clubs.
Home Secretary Priti Patel announced in July as part of a “radical programme of change” was to create an online tool called StreetSafe, which allows people to anonymously pinpoint locations they felt vulnerable walking in and why. It launched at the beginning of September and you can add to the database at police.uk/streetsafe.
The government’s plan also included the appointment for the new role of ‘Violence Against Women and Girls Champions’, who would help tackle the problems faced by female passengers. Two female executives in the West Midlands have been announced as first champions in July. There is also a plan to have a dedicated police officer in charge of tackling violence against females.
As a part of a £400,000 project, a new app is being developed to allow women to ask CCTV operators in a city to monitor them as they walk home. Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties at Big Brother Watch, said research showed “CCTV does not prevent crime and certainly does not stop men attacking or harassing women”.
After a review of the above actions and policies formulated for the safety of women, we can conclude that they are all reactive in nature. The investment in CCTV and the creation of apps that can track the movement of women show how these policies strengthen the surveillance state. The actions are merely superficial steps which do not tackle the root cause of violence against women that is misogyny and toxic masculinity. So far, the measures announced by the government are patchwork solutions. What we need to sustainable solutions to this issue and a stress on violence against women ‘by men’.
In England and Wales in March 2020, 4.9 million women said they had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales for the same year, 98% of people over the age of 16 who had been raped said the perpetrator was a man.
Media and government narratives frame the issue as ‘safety of women’ of ‘violence against women’. But there is a need to pinpoint violence ‘by men’ and ‘safety from men’. Only then can we come up with more sustainable and long-term solutions to tackle this issue without putting onus of safety on women. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it is “particularly an issue for men” and up to them to change their behaviour.
What is required is a cultural shift in men’s perception. Jane Lunnon, headteacher at the independent school Alleyn’s in south London, told Sky News that Ms Everard’s murder has sparked “an open and more powerful conversation” around violence against women there. “If you want to affect long-lasting change, a culture shift, you have to start with education”, she said. Women’s groups have also stressed on educating young boys, girls, men and women on the realities of gender-based violence. It is high time we shift the onus of crime from the victim to the perpetrator. What we need is an active approach towards tackling gender-based violence rather than passive solutions like more surveillance for women.