Sarah Everard murder: Women ask why they must walk the streets in fear with 'keys in hand just in case'

Differing reactions to Sarah Everard's story on social media cause dismay and expose a gender divide

Flowers placed by police officers at the golf course entrance are pictured, as the investigation into the disappearance of Sarah Everard continues, in Ashford, Britain, March 11, 2021. REUTERS/Paul Childs
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The suspected murder of Sarah Everard has prompted thousands of women to share online their daily fears of becoming a victim of violence.

In the aftermath of the arrest of a suspect and discovery of human remains, the hashtag #saraheverard was trending on Twitter as posts on women's experiences of assault and harassment poured in.

The marketing worker was snatched on 50-minute walk home from a friend’s house that took her across Clapham Common in south London at about 9 pm on March 3. She did not arrive home. On Friday police confirmed that a body found hidden in woodland in Kent, 80 kilometres southeast of the city.

For many it was a moment that hit home, as women told of the day-to-day methods they use to try and feel safe when walking alone in the city and its parks.

In a post that has been liked more than 43,000 times, one user listed habits she employed when she was out, including texting a friend once home or crossing the road to avoid a man on the street.

“I don’t know any woman who doesn’t fear for her safety as part of daily life. We consider routes, wearing headphones, cab registrations, street lights, parking car by day and how to walk to it at night, keys in hand just in case,” wrote singer Imelda May on Twitter.

A Tweet from Kate Burke calling on women to ‘like’ if they had ever walked home with keys in their hand to use in self-defence has already garnered tens of thousands of endorsements.

According to the Femicide Census, which tracks violence against women, at least 1,425 women were killed by men in the UK between 2009 and 2018. In a survey released by UN Women UK, 97 per cent of females aged 18-24 said they had suffered sexual harassment.

However, the differing reactions to Sarah Everard's story have exposed a gender divide. Many men used social media to ask what they should do differently, such as not walking closely behind a woman on her own.

In an echo of the pushback against racism claims made by Megan Markle earlier this week, a competing hashtag rebuking the generalisation of men as violent soon emerged.

An undated handout picture released by the Metropolitan Police on March 10, 2021, shows missing Sarah Everard who went missing in south London on the might of March 3. A police officer in London's diplomatic protection force was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of murder following the disappearance of a 33-year-old woman while she was walking home, police said. The arrest follow a week-long investigation into the disappearance of Sarah Everard, who vanished while walking home from a friend's flat in south London on the evening of March 3. - 
Sarah Everard. AFP

Twitter users were dismayed to find that #notallmen began trending higher than the one honouring Sarah Everard. The hashtag has been seen by some as signalling the failure to take the legitimate and statistically-accurate fears for women’s safety seriously.

“When not all men is trending more than Sarah Everard, do you see the problem?” said Emma Kennedy, whose tweet was liked 40,000 times and shared by more than 6,000 users.

Another user questioned why women’s real experiences were eliciting such male defensiveness. “If just hearing their experiences of harassment and abuse makes you feel the need to defend yourself, then perhaps you need to think why,” wrote Ellen Rose.

Meanwhile, actress Rosie Holt addressed the mental and emotional toll a hashtag like #notallmen takes on victims. “When people are sharing their sometimes painful lived experiences, it adds another level of exhaustion to constantly reassure the listener that they don’t mean ALL. It’s a reassurance at the expense of our own pain,” she wrote on Twitter.

A vigil titled 'Reclaim these Streets' is due to take place in south London at Clapham Common's bandstand at 6pm on Saturday evening in protest against advice that women should "not go out alone".

'Reclaim the Night,' a national women-only march against sexual violence, first took place in Leeds in 1977 in response to the Yorkshire Ripper murders, when police told women not to go out alone after dark.

Nearly one in three women worldwide is subjected to physical or sexual violence during her lifetime, pervasive criminal behaviour that has increased during the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation. In Britain rape prosecutions hit a record low in 2019/20 of 2,102, down about 30 per cent year on year, while convictions fell by 25 per cent to 1,439.  Official data showed that 42 per cent of cases failed due to evidential difficulties, such as victims not supporting further action, in 2020.