I wish today’s vigil didn’t have to happen. The murdered woman’s name, Zara Aleena, becomes another that we remember, joining the growing list of women who will never meet each other but who find themselves grouped together, with little in common but the fact that they never made it home.
Since the murder of Sarah Everard, vigils have become symbols of resistance to male violence in the UK. A way not just to remember and mourn, but for women to mobilise. By standing shoulder to shoulder, we take up space, our physical presence defying a status quo that means these public spaces where we meet are not always safe spaces for women to be.
Zara walked everywhere, and believed that all women should be able to walk home. A statement from her family talked about how she would bring a pair of flat shoes in her handbag so that she could take off her heels at the end of a night and head home comfortably. That detail gave me a lump in my throat. It’s so relatable – like asking a friend to text you when they get home, or clutching keys in your fist on dark roads, it’s something every woman has done.
When we organised the vigil for Sarah Everard, it felt like a turning point. The prime minister lit a candle for her on the doorstep of No 10, and politicians from all parties were saying “never again”. For the first time I can remember, we were talking about really tackling misogyny and tackling male behaviour, rather than yet again asking women to change their behaviour to accommodate it. Instead of yet more posters in women’s bathrooms telling us to alert a bartender if we felt unsafe, posters started going up by urinals telling men to challenge sexist comments from their mates.
But over a year later, any change has been cosmetic and those with the power to improve matters have turned their attentions elsewhere. In the year since Everard was killed, more women were killed by male perpetrators than the year before. While the number of successful rape convictions continues to drop, and women’s confidence in the police and justice system falls, the only thing that seems to be going up is the number of Tory MPs accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.
While the government’s violence against women and girls strategy, published last summer, included some important promises, including investing £3m towards getting a better understanding of what works to prevent male violence, it fails to engage with the scale of the problem facing women. The £3m for prevention pales in comparison with the £45m safer streets fund announced in the wake of Everard’s murder.
This focus on street lighting and public realm improvements is shortsighted and misses the point: it isn’t a matter of dark corners but the attitudes and behaviour of some of the men who occupy them. Dark corners would be safe if women were not heckled, followed and attacked in them by men who feel entitled to women’s attention and bodies. The home secretary rejected an amendment to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill that would have made misogyny a hate crime.
The home office minister Rachel Maclean stood up in parliament to praise apps that track women’s movements – missing the point that we don’t want to have to share our location to avoid violence on our walk home. We don’t want to be confined only to the well-lit streets. And we know that even when we do take the longer, better-lit route, it is no guarantee of safety.
And meanwhile, the freedom for women to challenge misogyny is being eroded. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act creates limits on our ability to protest, and by ripping up the Human Rights Act this government is limiting the ways in which women can challenge injustice. Our successful court case against the way the Met Police handled the Clapham Common vigil was only possible because of the Human Rights Act – it plays a crucial role in enabling women like us to hold institutions and authorities to account, as well as providing essential protections for women who have been victims and survivors of violence.
We need the freedoms to light candles for those women who never made it home. And we need the right to raise our voices so that tackling male violence never drops down the government’s agenda. We want cultural changes that mean we don’t have to keep looking over our shoulder, that mean we don’t need to wear comfy shoes to be able to run away from the man following us home, that mean we never have to ask our friends to text us when they get home safely. If they get home safely.
Because if apps and street lighting could solve violence against women and girls, we wouldn’t need to march today.