‘Women face threat of sexual violence in all areas of their lives’

Jemma Crew and Megan Baynes, PA
·5-min read

Women face the threat of sexual violence in all areas of their lives and are “tired of being afraid” to walk in the street, campaigners have said.

Following the harrowing disappearance of Sarah Everard, women across the country have been sharing their experiences of feeling unsafe and the violence and harassment they experience.

A vigil called “Reclaim these streets” has been organised on Facebook and is due to take place at Clapham Common bandstand in south London at 6pm on Saturday.

One of the organisers, Caitlin Prowle, said she is “tired of being afraid” to walk around the streets where she lives.

The 23-year-old told the PA news agency: “Together with a bunch of friends, we were just having the conversations that I imagine have been happening in a million WhatsApp groups across the country, with many women sharing their stories and how powerful that is and devastating at the same time.

“We thought it would be nice to set something up to channel some of that anger and hurt and group collective grief as well.

“It’s been a really difficult, heavy week. Violence against women is an epidemic, but sometimes it does take something like this, that hits a bit closer to home, to really bring it to the fore and certainly in people’s minds and people’s consciousness.

“There is a real sense of ‘enough is enough’. We can’t carry on like this.”

A survey for UN Women UK, published this week, found that 97% of women aged 18-24 said they have been sexually harassed.

Gemma Tutton, who set up a campaign with her sister Maya to end street harassment, said women face threats of sexual violence in every single part of their lives, which is “incredibly damaging for our mental health”.

The 16-year-old said it is “appalling” that women and girls have to learn about this directly through their own experiences.

The teenager told PA that during the first lockdown she was sexually harassed by two male teachers yelling at her from a school bus, while she is aware of girls being groped under their skirts at school.

“And I don’t know if it’s like this for other women but, for me, when I’m out in public and especially when I’m walking on my own, my heart always skips a beat when a car comes up behind me, and I don’t know if that’s going to be perceived as dramatic, but I’ve just now had so many experiences on all ends of the spectrum, that I know that wherever I am, whether it’s in public space, at school, on transport, or in a gym or in a sports facility, I’m not safe.

“And I’m not protected, and the key part is that I’m not protected by the law – the law has no specific legislation tackling public sexual harassment.”

She added: “Unless we fight these key parts that are on the base of the pyramid of sexual violence against women and girls, we’re never going to be able to properly tackle things like femicide and rape.”

Deeba Syed, a lawyer who runs Rights of Women, a free service for sexual harassment survivors, told PA: “We also need to understand how many women this affects. It’s not just white women — black and other minority groups experience this oppression and violence in intersectional ways and they face additional barriers when it comes to addressing these issues and accessing justice and being safe in the first place.”

She added: “It’s disappointing to us to see that so much of this conversation has been a discussion about how women should be modifying their behaviour, how they should be changing what they’re doing to avoid violence when really, I think this is just another type of victim-blaming. And this is really damaging.”

Hannah Tomes, who lives next to the road where Ms Everard was last seen, said the news had left her feeling “on edge”.

She told PA: “It has really highlighted how men and women experience cities in general differently, but especially London because Clapham is not a dangerous area and I’ve never felt unsafe before now.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel has said every woman “should feel safe to walk our streets without fear of harassment or violence”.

The Home Office said its violence against women and girls strategy, which will cover 2021-24, will published in spring.

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said that on average one woman was murdered by a man every three days in the UK.

She said: “The outpouring of anger and shared stories by women everywhere, reveals that most women fear male violence.

“That fear is based on a victim-blaming misogynistic culture and a woefully inadequate criminal justice system which provides near impunity for rapists and alarming failures in the tackling of domestic abuse.”

Joan Smith, chairwoman of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, said the disappearance of Ms Everard highlighted that “women have conditional access to public spaces”.

She told the PA news agency: “It speaks to an experience we all have, which is how do we deal with having to go about our everyday lives when there is always this underlying threat.”

She added: “To tell us that the streets are safe does not accord with the way we live our lives and what we have to deal with.”

Suky Bhaker, chief executive of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, said: “Being subject to violence is never a victim’s fault.

“Everyone has the right to be safe.

“It is clear that far more needs to be done to ensure that there is deep-rooted systemic change across society as a whole.”