Sarah Everard, 33 disappeared on the evening of 3 March 2021 while walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, South London. What started as a search for a missing person soon became a murder investigation with a male police officer and his female partner being arrested some days later.

The disappearance sparked intense debate about women’s safety on the streets of our cities and towns. Stories ranging from catcalling to muggings and sexual assaults have been shared by women across Twitter, Instagram and FaceBook.

But why has this particular incident caused such a response? Street crime and violence against women is, sadly, nothing new. According to the Office for National Statistics, it is estimated that about 1.3% of women were victims of violent crime in the year ending March 2020, with most violent attacks being by people the victim knows – 92% in the case of women (The nature of violent crime in England and Wales: Year ending March 2020). A YouGov Survey in January 2021 revealed that 97% of women aged 18-24 said that they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they’d been sexually harassed in public spaces.

Impact of lockdown

Sarah Everard’s death seems to have struck a certain chord with women and highlighted the ongoing issues surrounding sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, in particular since lockdown. Statistics revealing a rise in domestic abuse-related offences during the first UK national lockdown when compared to the same period in previous years. They also revealed a huge increase in numbers of calls to support services. The police recorded 259,324 offences flagged as domestic abuse-related in the period March to June 2020. This represents a 7% increase in the same period in 2019 and an 18% increase from 2018 (Domestic abuse in England and Wales overview: November 2020).

Aside from the impact of confinement within households, lockdown has inevitably seen commuter travel routes heavily affected by the working from home guidance with many means of public transport remaining almost empty. Once busy, bustling city streets became ghost towns amid quarantine rules and social distancing restrictions, presenting a new set of challenges for women when out alone. The risk of facing a potential attacker in a crowd was somewhat outweighed by the deterrent presented by the likely volume of witnesses.

But what happened to Sarah Everard is a fear faced by most women, of any age, background or sexual orientation. Before lockdown, it was making sure that you left a location by a certain time to ensure that you took the safest route home before dark or undergoing logistical planning to make sure all your girlfriends got home safe after a night out. Keeping an eye on girlfriends’ drinks while at bars to ensure they weren’t spiked, the strings of texts between friends to ensure that everyone got home safe and requests for confirmation of arrival.

But in this case, Sarah did everything ‘right’; wore bright clothing, took a main route home, called her boyfriend while en route and still questions were asked as to why she was out, alone at night.

The attitude of warning women against being out at night rather than advising men as to their conduct towards women has only fuelled the political fire on the issue. Arguments are being made that the onus remains on victims to avoid potentially unsafe situations rather than tackling the issue of harmful conduct by perpetrators. This backlash is reminiscent of the reaction to the warnings issued to women during the search for Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Women took to the streets in 1977 during ‘Reclaim the Night’ protests against warnings by police not to leave their homes after dark.

Moving in the wrong direction

The international media coverage of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements are certainly a move in the right direction but are things really changing? In England and Wales, revenge porn being made a criminal offence in 2015 and ‘upskirting’ in 2019 have been met with praise by women’s rights campaigners but when women are not safe on our streets and are fearful of undergoing our daily routines, it feels like it’s no progress at all. Even the daily commute for women was affected by issues of sexual harassment and assault well before lockdown. Transport for London reported in 2016 that 90% of sexual harassment on London’s Tubes goes unreported and launched the ‘Report it to Stop it’ campaign in 2015 with the British Transport Police, who are now present on the Underground to catch perpetrators or prevent sexual harassment.

This is not simply an issue of women’s safety on the streets; it’s attitudinal. Ideas of consent, online trolling of women and harrassment in the workplace all contribute to the wider issues of what has been dubbed ‘toxic masculinity’. It’s about an attitude towards women and an ongoing acceptance of misogyny that empowers a few with a sense of entitlement to conduct themselves in such a way.

The European Commission requested a survey on gender-based violence in November 2016 which revealed shocking details regarding attitudes to rape (Special Eurobarometer 449, Wave EB85.3, TNS opinion & social). Considering numerous topics surrounding gender-based violence, the survey gathered information concerning domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. Some of the most shocking findings outlined perceptions surrounding consent. Conducted in all then 28 EU member states and compiling the answers of 30,000 Europeans, the survey concluded that over 25% of those questioned justified non-consensual sex in various circumstances. These scenarios included when drink and drug consumption was involved as well as ‘when wearing revealing, provocative or sexy clothing’. Most shockingly, those who undertook the survey considered sex without consent to be acceptable in these cases, while one in five (22%) said that women often exaggerated or fabricated claims of abuse or rape (‘Europe: Gender Based Violence’, Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, Vol.181, 04 March 2017).

Most recently, in March 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention sending shockwaves across the country and sparking nationwide protests. The 2011 human rights treaty was established with the aim of preventing and combating violence against women and domestic abuse. Women’s rights defenders have called the withdrawal ‘a nightmare’ and will only serve to ‘empower rapists and abusers of women’.

But suggestions to tackle the issue of women’s safety in public spaces hasn’t been met with confidence. Suggestions such as placing plain clothes police officers in bars and nightclubs once lockdown restrictions have eased, in the light of the lenient sentencing of police officer Oliver Banfield for drunkenly attacking a woman on the streets, begs the question, how are we protected from those who are meant to protect us?

The severity of the situation cannot be underestimated and the fears are wide-ranging; from questioning whether a whistle on the streets by a stranger should be challenged or whether a victim of rape should make a complaint to police for fear of being blamed or of not being believed. Inevitably, this is an issue which goes beyond the capabilities of local government and campaign groups but to a wider level to challenging and changing attitudes towards violence against women, our roles in society and gender equality.