How can women feel safe?

What should parents say to their daughters about safety at night?



How should parents deal with the potential dangers associated with being female? Do you warn your daughters that they should be vigilant at all times? Is that the responsible thing to do? By doing so are you contributing to the restrictions women face – and shouldn’t? By not doing so are you failing to protect them? I have three daughters and I’ve had these conversations with them all.

Daughter two is experimenting with her look. She rails against the school telling her how long her skirt should be. She practically mounted a wholescale rebellion about that and the teachers who told her off on one occasion have their cards marked in her book. She firmly believes that she should be able to wear whatever she wants and that it says more about other people if they have a problem with it. And yet…I spent most of my youth in very baggy clothes, hiding from the world. Is that the solution? I don’t think so.

Daughter one loved the night. Ever since she was young, she found it thrilling and magical, a place of freedom from the daytime pressure of visibility. And it is. She went on holiday and decided to take a walk on her own in the middle of the night. Several men followed her. Fortunately, she returned unharmed. I had warned her on many occasions about the danger, but she argued that she should not feel restricted. She’s right, of course, but what good is being right if something bad happens? In the end, something terrible did happen and she is no longer here, but that was not due to her being out alone in the night.

It was, however, in Brixton, where Sarah Everard lived and the vigils this weekend coincided with Mother’s Day, the first anniversary of my daughter’s funeral. It all swirls around in my head, imagining what Sarah’s parents must be going through, the shock and unbelievability of it all and the terror every time you wake up that you are still in this nightmare, alongside the urge to do all that I can to keep my other daughters safe now that I can no longer do that for my first daughter.

So how do you do it? By sacking the head of the Met police? I don’t think so. It is a much bigger, harder thing to tackle than that. There are practical things that could be done on street lighting [by increasing the council budgets which have been hammered for years and are facing further cuts], by more visible policing [again in an era of cuts] etc, but in the main it is about changing attitudes to women. There are claims that women’s fear is exaggerated given that it is men who are more likely to be killed on the streets. That may be the case, but the problem is that most women have experienced some sort of unwanted attention from men at some point, whether harassment or full-scale violence. The trouble is you never know when what might seem a minor incident might escalate so you have to be vigilant all the time.

We like to believe in the idea of progress. There are, of course, more women in senior positions and in the workforce generally now than in the past and that is a good thing, but some of the stuff girls are growing up with now is horrendous and, because of social media, ubiquitous. The views, the expectations, the violence of the language used on social media are often extreme. What does that do to a young person? I went through daughter one’s snapchat messages recently, looking for photos, and I found this from 2019 that she had angrily posted to her friends from a random man on some dating app she was on [and so many are on them]: “I swiped right because I want to break ur little pussy”. This is just casual everyday stuff. You might say it goes with the territory, but that is the territory a lot of young women are in. Why do men feel they can post this kind of thing with no consequences?

Young women have no illusions about this kind of thing, but it gets mixed in with the whole sexual empowerment mantra and manipulated – is there anything empowering about being made to feel like nothing? Young women feel angry about it, the anger is intense, it often gets directed internally, which is equally damaging. So what do we do? We seem ill equipped to address the extent of the problem and I definitely feel that as a parent. There are no easy solutions and no one approach works – it’s a multi-headed problem and it needs a multi-headed answer. There are, of course, the obvious things like not blaming the victims, focusing on the perpetrators and empathy-based education. But the start surely needs to be an acknowledgement of the enormous scale of the problem and a commitment at all levels and from all quarters to doing something effective about it.

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