The Guardian view on violence against women: without safety, there can be no equality | Editorial

The welling anger and frustration voiced online this week reflect the persistence of harassment and assault

The last day or so has seen an outpouring of grief and anger over the disappearance of Sarah Everard, who vanished last week as she walked home in Clapham, south London. A serving Metropolitan police officer has now been arrested on suspicion of her kidnapping and murder. Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner, told reporters: “It is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets. I completely understand that despite this, women in London and the wider public – particularly those in the area where Sarah went missing – will be worried and may well be feeling scared.”

As her remarks suggest, the case has sparked a potent reaction. For many women, it has tapped into far broader concerns about the abuse and violence they face. Six women and a little girl have been reported as killed since Sarah Everard went missing, noted Jess Phillips, Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence. Harassment and assault by men are anything but rare. It is more than 40 years since the first Reclaim the Night march, which was prompted by the Yorkshire Ripper murders and the police response, telling women to stay at home after dark. Now a Reclaim These Streets vigil is to be held in Clapham on Saturday. Women are exhausted. The frustration and rage vented on social media and in parliament is the product of a society where it is normal for women to live in fear.

This week, a survey for UN Women UK found that four-fifths of young women in the UK – 86% of 18- to 24-year-olds – have been sexually harassed; almost none reported it. Almost every woman has tales of encounters ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults – often dating back to her childhood. While women of all ages are at risk of violence, girls and young women appear especially vulnerable to male violence in public places. Women spend their lives planning routes, clenching keys and readying themselves to run. But online, many also recounted lists of what they do not do, from visiting friends once the sun has set to walking alone in the countryside – trading freedom for safety, in the words of Professor Liz Kelly, an expert on violence against women. “We do safety work all the time and it costs us – our time, our imaginations, our space to experience joy, our embodiment,” she wrote.

Yet women cannot keep themselves safe by staying at home: on average, two a week in England and Wales are killed by abusive partners or ex-partners – and the numbers are feared to have risen since the pandemic began. As new realms open up, women’s freedoms are curtailed there too. Online threats and harassment are rife. There is real cause for concern that extreme online content is spilling over into offline life.

We teach girls to shrink their lives, while doing too little to educate boys and men not only to respect women, but also to challenge those who do not do so. Sexual harassment may come at one end of the spectrum of male threat, but it creates a climate in which women feel unsafe and predatory men are emboldened. The government should consider a street harassment law like that introduced in France. But its priority must be turning around the dismal record on tackling violence. Rape prosecutions have dropped every year since 2016-17 – more than halving in that time – and are now at a record annual low. The number of domestic abuse prosecutions fell by almost a quarter in the last three months of 2019. Slashed funding has closed refuges across the country. The cash promised in the budget is a fraction of what is needed.

Years of work have delivered precious victories. This week, the House of Lords backed amendments to the domestic abuse bill that create statutory defences for women driven to offend. Much more still needs to be done. Women cannot be equal if we cannot feel safe. And we cannot achieve that alone.

• This article was amended on 24 March 2021. An earlier version referenced the findings of a UN Women UK survey and stated that 97% of women aged 18-24 had reported being sexually harassed. This figure was incorrectly supplied to us and has been changed to 86%. The news article that reported this figure has also been corrected.

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