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Will women’s safety EVER be taken seriously?

Months after the murder of Sarah Everard, the government’s promise to protect women and girls feels like nothing more than lip service, says Georgina Littlejohn

A few months ago, on March 10th, the remains of a young woman called Sarah Everard were found in Kent just a week after she went missing while walking home from seeing a friend in south London.

The next day, the Mayor of London announced that the streets of the capital were not safe for women and girls (how very insightful of him!) and Home Secretary Priti Patel said new laws were being considered to protect women against sexual harassment, including the potential of making public harassment, including wolf-whistling and cat-calling, a specifically defined crime.

This week, she stepped up to her commitment and said she would be “taking action” on a range of safety concerns, adding: “I am committed to ensuring not only that the laws are there, but that they work in practice and women and girls are confident their concerns will be taken seriously.”

“It is important that the police enforce the law and give women the confidence that if they report an incident, it will be dealt with.”

Great! At last, women’s safety was finally a priority, we had been listened to and the government was taking action to protect us.

However – and why is there always a ‘however’? – Ms Patel then added: “It is unacceptable that women and girls are still subject to harassment, abuse, and violence, and I do not accept that violence against women and girls is inevitable.”

Ah, you see – and not for the first time – this is where you and I disagree, Ms Patel.

Unfortunately, violence against women and girls is inevitable. It always has been and sadly, it always will be.

And while we of course welcome any new laws that punish the offenders, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that government will ever take our safety seriously, or that police will enforce the law and deal properly with complaints of rape, sexual assault or harassment.

My faith in Ms Patel’s statement diminished further when, less than 24 hours after her pledge, the BBC reported that it had been approached by 16 women with complaints of sexual harassment by male guards at government-authorised quarantine hotels.

And how did the Department for Health and Social Care respond? It promised that women travelling alone will be given a female guard to chaperone them. Good news.

But then it added that if female guards are unavailable, women should be escorted by two male guards “with each guard chaperoning the other to ensure appropriate behaviour”.

Are they taking the piss or are these people (although I suspect a man because no woman would ever dream of putting a woman in a vulnerable position and then make it worse) just extremely stupid? 

And if that doesn’t show a serious lack of both empathy towards women and support for our rights, I don’t know what does. Do these people ever read the room before opening their mouths? Social care, my arse.

So we’re not even safe from male civil servants, it seems.

Only a few months ago, we witnessed male Metropolitan Police officers bodyslam and handcuff young women because they dared to attend a peaceful vigil for Ms Everard.

A 33-year-old woman who was kidnapped, raped and then murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, nonetheless. The same officer who was allegedly nicknamed ‘The Rapist’ by former colleagues and had two allegations of indecent exposure made against him, the second one just two weeks before he murdered Sarah.

Only this week a former colleague of mine witnessed a man exposing himself on Hampstead Heath in broad daylight. Two years ago, I got on a Northern Line train in the afternoon only for a young man to sit down two seats away and start masturbating. Of course I reported him to the British Transport Police and although the officer I dealt with took my complaint very seriously, nothing was ever done due to lack of both resources and CCTV footage.

In October 2019, the Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey pledged to roll-out CCTV across the Central Line due to an almost 50 percent increase in sexual assaults. He said perpetrators were targeting that line because of the lack of security cameras.

Off the back of this, I wrote to him and Susan Hall, the leader of the London Conservatives on the London Assembly (who had backed him up) telling them about my experience just a few months earlier, how I applauded them for their pledge and that I would be happy to help with any campaigning.

They never responded.

Two weeks after Ms Everard’s murder, Mr Bailey then repeated his pledge, this time saying he would make sure cameras were installed across the entire network.

Suffice to say, he didn’t get my vote.

But even if the police or civil servants do ever start to step up and take our reports seriously, what about the lack of action taken by the Crown Prosecution Service or judges? In England and Wales in 2020, according to Home Office figures, of the 52,210 rapes recorded by police in 2020, only 843 resulted in a charge or a summons. 

843. Out of 52,210. No wonder James Daly, the Conservative MP for Bury North, who spent more than a decade working as a criminal defence solicitor, said the statistics were “utterly shameful”.

But what’s the solution? More street cameras, more CCTV on public transport and more ‘bobbies on the beat’?

All these would definitely be a start but we also need to know that if we physically retaliate against our harassers, that it won’t be us in the dock.

I know I am not the only woman who has walked home with keys between their knuckles or holding a lit cigarette ready to stab out on any assailant. I also used to hold a travel can of hairspray up one sleeve and a lighter up the other, just in case.

But there was also the fear that should we, god forbid, ever need to use these objects, would we be seen as the criminals, the objects we held tightly looked upon as lethal weapons instead of ones of self defence?

Ms Patel also said the Department for Education would work with the Office for Students to tackle sexual harassment and abuse in higher education. But surely it also needs to start from a much younger age? Drum it into boys and girls as early as possible, teach them about sexual boundaries and respect. And after the jaw-dropping comment from the DHSC, there are some grown men that clearly need to be educated as well.

Of course, I would never, ever apply this to all men. I am lucky that the ones in my life are decent and respectful gentlemen but there are also a lot of misogynistic, predatory and violent thugs that walk among us.

I shall wait with bated breath to see if anything comes from Ms Patel’s pledges, but in the meantime, I shall keep fighting for women’s rights, keep supporting my female friends and family as well as continuing to keep my wits about me, avoid vulnerable situations late at night and continue to carry an ordinary object as a weapon.

I shouldn’t have to do the latter, no woman should, but until women’s safety starts to be taken seriously, this is, sadly, the society we live in. 

Is it sinking in yet, Ms Patel? 

Stay safe, ladies. 

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Georgina Littlejohn

Georgina Littlejohn is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience specialising in general and London news, entertainment and music. She cut her teeth in TV writing for news, sport and showbiz programmes before moving into print, starting at Associated Newspapers where she worked across the board from the Metro to the Standard to the London Lite before ending at MailOnline, where she was one of the senior showbiz reporters. After going freelance and working stints at the Mirror, the Sun, Music Week and Closer magazine, she took a career break in 2014 to work for theatre impresario Bill Kenwright as his Head of Communications. After a year as Senior Homepage Editor for MSN, she is now back freelancing and currently working for the i newspaper and its award-winning website. Georgina also volunteers as a kennel assistant for the Mayhew and as a befriender for Age UK.

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