For women collectively, March proved to be a heavy month. With the publishing of statistics showing just how widespread sexual harassment is, the murder of Sarah Everard and the call for justice for Blessing Olusegun, there was unsurprisingly an outpouring of grief, anger and exhaustion. Across the country, attempts were made to organise vigils, many of which were only allowed to be held online. The words spoken were no less powerful, neither was the feeling that change is long overdue. Here are statements from some of us at Women’s Voice for one of these vigils.
Statement by Kirsty Grennan: None of this was a surprise
In my family alone, consisting of; me, my mother, sister and four young adult daughters …we have all experienced sexual harassment on these streets.
43 years after the first Reclaim these Streets march you just have to look at how our society is organised and how it continues to function, to see that there is still an expectation that women will carry the burden.
Sadly, last Saturday in our collective grief and anger we shared one thing in common:
None of this was a surprise.
Male violence is ever-present. We have been born into it. Keeping ourselves safe from it is stitched into our DNA: a hyper-vigilant mutation passed from one weary generation to the next. We’re so used to it – so used to men getting away with it – that it feels inevitable.
I first experienced it when I was 11 years old, in my new school uniform, on my walk home from school. Leering, wolf whistling, rude comments from older men on a building site. I was ashamed, I told no one, but I soon learned to take the long walk home to avoid the verbal abuse.
Two years ago, I remember my 21-year-old daughter’s shock after her first semester at university. She felt upset and didn’t know how to cope with the harassment she was getting on nights out.
And then full circle 35 years later, and my 16-year-old daughter is anxious about walking home after dark, after she was harassed on her way home from school.
It just doesn’t go away.
However- We must never accept that 97 % of women aged 18-24, have been sexually harassed.
We must never accept that 80% of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.
We must never accept that in the UK 2 women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner.
We must never accept that nearly 90,000 women are raped every single year in the UK.
We must continue to take up space on these streets.
We must continue to make our voices heard.
We must rebel against the inequality and injustice that causes male violence against women and allows it to thrive.
This is why our ‘This is not love’ project at Hastings Womens Voice is so important. We need you to help us mobilise, educate and empower our young women. We need to channel our anger; we need to force a change.
I encourage you to get in contact with us and together we will make a real difference.
I would like to finish with words that have become an anthem and a beacon of hope for the oppressed, from a poem by Maya Angelou called … ‘I Rise’
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise…….
…….Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. ……..I rise, I rise.…….
Statement by Sabina Arthur:
A UN report that revealed last month that nearly every young woman in the UK today has experienced some form of sexual harassment. 80% of all women, and 97% of women aged 18 to 24, said they had been sexually harassed in a public space.
This will not to come as a surprise to any women reading.
The threat of harassment or violence is always at the back of our minds when we’re out at night. We instinctively know to avoid eye contact, to close ourselves off in public, not draw attention to ourselves, to take a taxi, or walk the long way home and avoid short cuts, we stay alert, we hold our keys between our fingers just in case we might need to defend ourselves.
Every woman knows the relief of getting inside to safety and locking the door. Every woman knows the ritual of texting a friend to let her know you’ve arrived, we all do it, we all tell our friends to do it and we all know why. It’s such a routine part of our lives that we’ve come to accept as the norm.
We do these things to feel like we can control what happens to us, that somehow it’s our responsibility to stop men killing us
And yes, we’ve heard the cries of “not all men”, even louder than usual in recent weeks. No, it’s not all men, but it is some men, enough men to kill one women every three days in this country, and we don’t know who or where those men are.
And it’s true that women are more likely to be killed by a man we know well; 57% of women killed in the last 10 years were killed by men they know, but that means that over 40% of women are not. Over 40% of women are murdered by someone else’s brother, husband, partner, father, son, colleague or friend.
I’ve been taught my whole life how not to get raped, but how many boys are taken aside and taught not to rape? Or what harassment means? Or coercive control? When are we, as a culture, going to start teaching men to take responsibility? To call out sexism, cat calling, harassment and abuse whenever they see it from their friends, colleagues and relatives?
Men told us that they were shocked by Sarah Everard’s murder. Women were not shocked, we were sad and we are angry. Another women murdered on her way home, and this time a police officer has been charged with her murder, she joins a tragic list of women let down by the police. Blessing Olusegun was found dead after walking home in Bexhill and we still don’t know what happened to her.
Harassment, abuse and violence of women is systemic, from school, to work to our interactions with the police, our society accepts that it is part of life. And the services here to protect women, and to provide safe spaces continue to have funding cut by our government. And when women do find the courage to report they are often not believed.
Yet we’re the ones writing articles, giving talks, organising vigils and talking about how we can teach men. And we have to keep doing that, we have to keep teaching women how to recognise abuse. But it’s time now for more men to do the work too.
Statement by Megan Cronin: Jaywalking
It’s night-time and I’m walking home alone. I’m almost home and I’m jaywalking the last stretch, because I’m a little bit afraid. In one hand, I clench my house key. In the other, I clench my phone to my ear and I’m talking to someone, anyone. I’m telling them that I’m almost back. In the end, I get home safe. As I always have done. I let myself into my flat and lock the world out. I think I am irrational. Paranoid. Nothing happened on the way home. I wasn’t shouted at. But I’ve been shouted at before. Wasn’t catcalled. That has happened before. I wasn’t followed (on foot or by car) but that has happened before. No-one leered or lurked or cornered me or touched me – that has all happened before. No. I got home safe, and I think I was silly for being so afraid. I also think it’s a bit bonkers I walked in the road to keep myself safe from someone who might jump out at me. I just made it likely that I’d be hit by a car. However, certain very tragic events happen that make me, make us women, realise that these feelings of fear or fight or flight that we experience on our streets combined with all the things we do to ‘keep ourselves safe’ (even if we know we’re not the problem and these things probably won’t work) are not irrational at all. These thoughts, feelings, things we do aren’t silly. If over time, harassment has become normalised, men are never held accountable for their actions and we hear stories, constantly, that chill our blood, we aren’t irrational for being afraid or hyper-aware of every footstep we hear behind us, every rustle in darkened alleys, every car that crawls past with a pair of stony eyes glaring from behind a tinted window. Our fears are legitimate, and we should not have to live like this. Public street harassment, misogyny, violence against women are all very real. We knew this before the Guardian article about sexual harassment came out. We knew this before Sarah and Blessing’s lives were taken. So how much trauma and death does it have to take before things change?
Women make up half the population. ‘80% of women of all ages said they’d experienced sexual harassment in public places.’ ‘Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone’. Women are being targeted. That’s pretty clear. This should no longer be something that ‘happens to women’. Perpetrators must be held accountable. The onus should not be on women to modify their behaviour. We are clearly not the problem.
Sarah and Blessing were just like us, with their likes, dislikes, hobbies, talents, quirks. Misogyny perpetuates the myth that women aren’t human but something Other and separate. The dehumanisation of women makes it easier for us to be controlled, objectified, mocked, hated, killed and exploited by a rotten system that seeks only to serve itself. The tragedy that Sarah, Blessing and countless women’s lives have been cut short due to misogyny is already overwhelming. These women should be alive today… But as they are no longer with us, we must remember them well. We must, in our minds, remember all of these women as people who had plans, worlds, humanity, just like we do. And then with all that in mind, we must understand and talk about the magnitude and reality of femicide and hold the constantly insidious ever-morphing patriarchy responsible.
It’s time for us to root down stronger than we ever have before, take up our rightful spaces, link together and form the strongest network we can: within our community, across the country and across the world. Resistance is tough and exhausting: we will need each other. We need to use both words and deeds and to share our experiences and shape them into meaningful action. We will empower ourselves to save ourselves, because we cannot rely on empty promises or the voices telling women ‘later…we’ll help you after we sort something else more pressing…’ This IS pressing. We ARE a priority.
And for the men who are silent, who are now failing to take responsibility, I have this for you in the words of Arundhati Roy:
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.’
We shouldn’t have to be jaywalking alone into our future. We shouldn’t have to hope we get home safe. We should be certain that we will.