Sarah Everard,Blessing Olusegun,Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry are all names we got to know over recent months for heartbreaking reasons. As we learned about these women and their families we felt collectively bound by grief. But their stories triggered a primal fear and a flood of memories about that horrible moment when we were walking home or for many an incident of sexual abuse or violence which we had buried and hidden deep in our sub-conscious.
Suddenly women all over the country were reliving their own trauma and thinking about their near misses. “It could have been me” was the chilling thought that ran through our heads, because it could have been. The statistics about the scale of violence and sexual harassment against women and girls continue to shock.
Soma Sara created the initiative Everyone’s Invited before these cases came to light. It saw thousands of young women share testimony about rape culture in schools, colleges and university. A report out this week by Victim Focus which surveyed more than 22,000 women found 99.7 per cent had been subjected to male violence more than once. But we have to move beyond being dismayed at these statistics. Just because the media circus has moved on, we can’t let the anger ebb away. We have to make our streets, schools and all public and private spaces safer for women — we are more than half the population yet it is accepted that we live with the fear of male violence and therefore lead a limited life.
As part of London Rising, I will be chairing a fascinating discussion with Sara, Nimco Ali — an activist and independent government adviser — and Jake Saunders, of the charity Tender which works with young people to prevent sexual abuse. There’s no easy fix as this is such a deep-rooted cultural norm which affects all parts of society, but there was some consensus. We need the law to be toughened up. Men need to know they can and will get caught. Women need to trust the police and criminal justice system. Public policy needs to listen to women on safety.
But the biggest issue is education and boys; men and parents have to be part of it. It is no good just telling girls and women to “be careful” — we know! I was recently involved in a well-intended but frustrating discussion where it was suggested all women within the organisation be given a rape alarm. Job done! I suggested they probably already had one but how about the senior men have a session with all the younger men when they join where they get told not to harass, grope or abuse women. They haven’t come back to me on that. We have to make this a moment of change. We have to keep having these difficult but vital conversations.
There’s one good thing to emerge from the Downing Street flat refurb sleazathon: it has united the country in our righteous love for John Lewis. All across these shores, there were gasps of horror at the suggestion that Boris and Carrie called it a “nightmare”. How very dare they? John Lewis is big time aspirational for most of us mere mortals. Like our Breakfast at Tiffany’s — nothing very bad could happen to you there. Forget flags, we have found the true symbol of patriotism. Never knowingly undersold — unlike that ghastly refurb.
Ayesha Hazarika’s London Rising discussion with Soma Sara, Nimco Ali and Jake Saunders streams tomorrow, from 12.55pm to 1.30pm. Watch online at londonrising.standard.uk