Instead of grief and concern about what happened to Sarah, the news has been dominated by protests and violence as women defend their right to freedom; a narrative that for many women in Yorkshire echoes sentiments of the 1970s and 80s when Peter Sutcliffe was at large.
In a modern world where everything from technology to gender equality has progressed, one has to ask: why has the approach to women’s safety not moved on in almost 50 years?
In 1970s Yorkshire, women were put under curfew and told not to go out alone from fear that they would become Sutcliffe’s next victim.
The official advice was to “not go out at night unless absolutely necessary and only if accompanied by a man you know”. Anyone who is familiar with the history will know that at the time – through the West Yorkshire Police’s careful release of specific details of the victim’s lives – the women who Sutcliffe murdered were portrayed as being somehow responsible for their own deaths.
In 1977 women marched to ‘reclaim the night’ in protest of their freedom and against the idea that women should be the ones to be restricted by Sutcliffe’s actions.
Fast forward to the current day, and there have been claims of similar advice being offered to women by police following Sarah Everard’s disappearance and before her body was found in Kent.
Residents of the London area where Sarah went missing have shared experiences of being warned by police against going out alone, which has caused a backlash amongst women who are wondering why they are being held accountable for actions out of their control.
Social media has been alight with anger at the naïve and insensitive responses to women’s personal stories, and there have been modern day ‘reclaim the night’ protests demanding change and acknowledgement of the bigger issue.
Remove the medium of social media and this story could run parallel to the reactions to police advice given to women in the north of England between 1975 and 1980 when Sutcliffe murdered 13 women and attempted to murder seven others.
As a young girl, I recall my nana telling me of nights where she would go to meet my mother coming home with a hat pin concealed down her coat sleeve from fear of being attacked.
I was brought up being told not to go out alone at night, to let someone know when I left and when I got home, and I always pretend to be on the phone to a friend when I get in a taxi alone. It is exhausting, and like most other women, I am tired of considering my every move. It is time for change.
Women are harassed at work, in the street in broad daylight and in social settings. We’ve lost jobs, relationships and reputations for speaking out against it and even now, in a time when the majority of people are thought to be socially aware, harassment is a taboo topic.
But here is a thought. If you applied the same logic as the police guidance about staying safe at night to every instance of harassment, women wouldn’t be advised to go anywhere on their own; every situation and setting would be a risk.
Let’s be clear, advising women to stay in at night, not to walk alone and to take extra safety precautions, solely because of their sex, is not a solution and it won’t fix the problem.
The issue needs to be addressed at its core and, for that to happen, we need all men to take responsibility by addressing harassment, both publicly and privately.
If highlighting inappropriate behaviour was normalised and was no longer shrugged off as ‘just a bit of fun’, then harassment would become more obvious to identify and stop.
Cat calling would no longer blend into the background of street noise and unwanted attention would not look like a stranger ‘just making conversation’.
However, to fully grasp what these situations look and feel like in order to prevent them, we need to start listening to, and sharing women’s stories, without prejudice.
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