The Sarah Everard case is a stark reminder of how unsafe it feels to be a woman

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
·6-min read
Photo credit: Met Police
Photo credit: Met Police

From Cosmopolitan

Since last week, I've seen the same face popping up on Instagram more times than I can count: Sarah Everard's. Posts from her friends, friends of friends, and from people who don't have any connection to her at all have been shared far and wide, flooding Instagram stories and grids - a collective urgency to find her and bring her home safely.

It's always devastating to hear of a missing persons case, but there's something about Sarah Everard's disappearance that feels different. That bit closer to home. Like it could have been any of us. Sarah hasn't been seen since she embarked upon a 50 minute walk home at 9pm last Wednesday night, via busy roads, and her disappearance is now being treated as suspected murder. Her last known activity is something so many of us have probably done ourselves, and is a disturbing reminder that there's an inherent risk in every little thing we do as women - be it walk home, or jump in a taxi, or go on a date.

It's disheartening - but not surprising - that data released today from UN Women suggests 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed. The micro-protections we take against the risk of being a woman are ones we're so conditioned to doing, we hardly even notice them anymore. The keys gripped tightly between our knuckles as we approach our homes in the dark; the instinctive act of sharing our journey the moment we close the door of an Uber; the glances behind us once, twice, as we trail the streets alone. But what's so troubling is that when she walked home from a friend's house last Wednesday night, Sarah exercised some of these acts of self-protection. She rang her partner, speaking to him for 15 minutes during her journey. She walked on busy traffic routes. And yet here we are, a pang of nausea arriving in our stomachs as we read the BBC alert notifying us that a police officer has been arrested on suspicion of her murder. The precautions do not appear to have been enough to protect her.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

For Cosmopolitan's Chief Sub-Editor, Hannah Jones, it's these facts that make it most unsettling. "This seems to transgress what I would trust to be 'safe'," she says. "Whatever happened seems to have done so after she left a friend’s house at about 9 o'clock - not in the early hours. I would definitely think I was safe on a busy main road and at that time. I find it exhausting looking behind myself every time I get off the train and leave the station late at night to see who else is around."

It may have been dark at the time Sarah walked home, but the risk women are exposed to doesn't automatically dissipate when the sun rises, either. "Sarah's case has terrified me," says 30-year-old Gina*. "So many scary things have happened to many of us while walking around in broad daylight too. A man once flashed his genitals to me in the middle of the afternoon on the street I lived on. My old flatmate was followed to the gym one morning, and sexually assaulted in our neighbourhood. I could list so many examples," she shares.

Locked up in lockdown

What's so disconcerting is that something like this has happened during lockdown, when we've mostly been cocooning ourselves inside the safety of our homes to protect against an entirely different risk. It's one thing to fear a virus in the outside world, something invisible to the naked eye. But to add a further seed of dread about this to the list - a real and valid fear of danger at the hands of other human beings - is a burden no woman needs right now.

The impact of what might have happened to Sarah Everard is one that will be far reaching, and at a time it's only going to be damaging for people to feel any more restricted than they already are. "During the darkest winter months of the lockdown, I started to resent the fact that I didn’t feel safe going outside at night," 29-year-old Rebecca tells me. "Up until that point in the pandemic, I used to run every day and it did wonders for my mental health, but when the mornings and evenings got really dark, it became difficult to find a good time to do it outside of working hours."

Rebecca's boyfriend would sometimes accompany her so she'd feel safer, but with much of the benefit lying in the fact that running enables her zone out for some alone time, this felt frustrating in itself. "With gyms and swimming pools closed and exercise classes cancelled, the opportunities for women to exercise safely during the winter lockdown have been very limited. All we have at the moment is the outdoors, so it’s horrible when that doesn’t feel safe," Rebecca says.

Domestic abuse cases have shot up in lockdown, so what kind of message does a case like this send to women living inside homes that themselves pose risk? Our houses aren't safe, our streets aren't safe, nowhere is safe.

The blame game

There's one narrative you can always rely on when the tragic news of a woman's disappearance breaks: what could she have done to change events? How could she have kept herself safer? But how about these questions instead:

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Victim blaming is the lazy response to a perpetual problem, and it's everywhere. It's in the 'short skirt' defence we see in so many sexual assault cases, and in the interrogations about 'how much she had to drink'.

Who knows why Sarah chose to walk instead of getting a taxi on Wednesday night. Perhaps it was something to do with not wanting to expose herself to risk of close contact with another person in the middle of the pandemic. Regardless, it's beside the point. If there hadn't have been a man capable of harming Sarah Everard, then she would never have gone missing in the first place. And this is the message we need to filter down and keep at the heart of this case.

Being a woman is wonderful in so many ways; in the colour, the flare, the curves, the edges and the strength that it brings. But it's a sad fact that presenting as female also opens you up to an innate risk of being harmed. Will we ever see that change?

Follow Cat on Instagram.

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