Sophy Ridge: Harassment of women is commonplace and it's time to get angry

·3-min read

You can hear footsteps behind you.

Do you turn around to see who it is - or could that be viewed as provocative? Do you speed up, cross the road - or would that show vulnerability - that you are scared?

You put your hands in your pockets and grip your keys, just in case, turning the music down on your headphones. You scan the streets ahead for a shop, or a petrol station, or another passer-by, and kick yourself for being ridiculous. The footsteps are getting louder now, so you risk a quick, furtive glance behind.

Like many women, I have felt quite shaken by the story of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old woman who disappeared while walking home from Clapham in South London. Police searching for her have found human remains in woodland in Ashford, Kent, and a serving police officer has been arrested on suspicion of kidnap and later of murder.

The reason it has hit so many women so hard is because it has acted as a confirmation of our worst fears. That sometimes the voice telling us not to be silly and frightened - that we are grown women and shouldn't feel vulnerable walking home - is wrong. Sometimes we are justified in being frightened.

Sarah did everything we are "told to": Take the longer route and walk along a main road, don't leave too late, keep in contact with your loved ones. But it still wasn't enough.

We are told we are safe on our streets, that being snatched by a stranger is extremely rare.

But Sarah's story speaks to us because the reality is that while abduction is rare, harassment is not.

There has been an outpouring of women sharing their stories on social media, speaking out about being followed, or flashed, or stalked, or groped. Almost all of us will have a story - or multiple stories. Everyday harassment is not rare. It is just a part of how women navigate cities; it is part of the fabric of our lives.

And while kidnap may be rare, violence against women is not.

As the Labour MP Jess Phillips has highlighted, six women and a little girl have been killed since Sarah Everard disappeared.

For many, the initial reaction to Sarah's story was fear. But now it's time to get angry.

The number of reports of rape to the police has almost doubled since 2015, but there are fewer prosecutions and convictions than at any time on record. In the last three years, rape convictions have more than halved.

In the year ending March 2020, domestic abuse crimes recorded by the police increased by 9%, but referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service fell by 19%, and the number of domestic abuse prosecutions fell by 22%.

One in five women - 3.4 million - have experienced sexual assault in their lives, and 510,000 experienced a sexual assault in the last year.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has said it is "thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets".

But violent crime against women is not rare, and for many the streets do not feel safe.

It is time for that to change.