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Why are women afraid to walk alone?

Poppy Murray explains the thinking behind a public safety campaign she started in Guernsey which is now being introduced in schools and other public bodies

Like many 20-something women, the tragic case of Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a stranger as she walked home in March 2021, struck a chord with me.

Sarah’s story gained traction with the public, in particular with women, because Sarah had done everything “right”.

Sarah had followed all the unspoken rules that women follow in attempts to keep themselves safe when they are walking alone. She was dressed “appropriately”, she was in a well-lit area, a friend knew where she was, and she was in an area she knew. She did what we all do, thinking it will be enough to keep us safe. She was not safe. 

Sarah was certainly not the first and was, sadly, not the last woman who has been in danger simply by virtue of choosing to walk alone.  In the last year alone, there have been five high-profile cases of women being murdered by strangers as they walked alone in the UK.

Sabina Nessa was murdered by a stranger while walked alone to meet a friend in September 2021. Bobbi-Anne McLeod was kidnapped and murdered by a stranger while she waited alone for a bus in November 2021. Ashling Murphy was murdered by a stranger while she jogged alone in January 2022. Zara Aleena was murdered by a stranger while she walked home alone in June 2022.

For women in particular, each of these cases has validated the question "why are women afraid to walk alone?". While the answer may seem simple, (based on a mountain of statistical evidence), it is often tossed like a grenade into a minefield of a gendered violence debate, exploding on impact while countless other inconvenient truths detonate around it.

In the wake of Sarah’s murder, women took to social media to share their experiences of being afraid to walk alone, with one twitter user commenting: “The saddest thing about stories of women feeling unsafe walking alone, is that every woman has one.”

#notallmen

As more and more women started sharing their experiences in the wake of a case which irrefutably validated their fears, the hashtag “notallmen” started trending. Men felt as though they were being vilified. 

The men sharing the hashtag seemed to be under the impression that all women believed that all men are kidnappers, rapists and murderers. That all women were accusing all men of being legitimate threats. That all women were blaming all men.

I saw this conversation play out on social media and, shortly after, in conversations with male colleagues, friends, relatives and peers. I would listen to men tell me that women don’t need to be afraid, then, in the very next breath, say that they wouldn’t let their sister/girlfriend/wife/mother walk home alone. 

For any man who has ever told a woman to “get home safe”, I pose the question: do you ever think about why she wouldn’t? Aside from accidents, what are you imagining would be a reason why a woman may not get home safe?

Statistically (gov.uk sexual harassment survey), the biggest threat to a woman walking alone, is a man.

BE LADS

Time after time, I have had conversations which have highlighted the disconnect between some men believing women have no reason to be afraid, and yet having concerns that their female relatives/friends would be unsafe walking alone.

Desperate to do something, anything, to help bridge the gap and bring the genders together on the issue, I launched the BE LADS campaign, with "BE LADS" being an acronym for simple steps men could take to let women know that they are not threats.

Be visible

Ease the tension by making a phone call

Look away, don’t stare

Active bystander

Distance yourself

Suggest walking your friends home

I have presented the campaign in school assemblies, to government committees, to Bailiwick Law Enforcement, at a public vigil, to local community groups and on global webinars. It has been added to the school curriculum in Guernsey. It was delivered as training to more than 1,000 staff in a construction company in Ireland, being well-received by the male-dominated workforce. 

The implementation of the BE LADS lesson for all 16-year-olds in Guernsey is an important step forward in the cultural shift needed not only in raising awareness of the issue, but in providing practical advice on how to tackle the problem. It is a fantastic way to start the conversation without needing to delve into case studies which may not be appropriate to discuss with students.

The message is clear and it seeks to create a shift in what it means to be a “lad”. While traditionally “lads” are associated with being perpetrators of intimidating behaviour towards women, there needs to be a shift that behaving in a considerate way towards women becomes the new normal. 

The biggest message from the BE LADS campaign is that women know not all men are threats. Women are not accusing all men. Women do not want to tar all men with the same brush. 

Imagine you are a shark 

What needs to be clearly understood is that, statistically, 97% of women will be harassed or assaulted in their lifetime. There is no way for a woman to know who her assailant will be, when it will happen or where it will happen. She just knows it is extremely likely to happen at some point. 

In trying to relay the issue to men as to why women feel afraid when walking alone, I use an analogy of sharks to try and put the issue into perspective.

For this example to be more closely aligned with the truth, you would need to imagine that shark fins continue to come towards you throughout the entire time you are in the water. Imagine how tiring it would be to assess whether each fin was going to pass you by and leave you safe, or not. It would be far easier if a "safe" shark could give you a signal which would alleviate your fears.

While it is somewhat frustrating that the issue needs to be adapted into a more relatable example than the truth, it is undeniably effective in being easily understood. It would be nice if, one day, I could simply say "women are afraid to walk alone because, statistically, they are unsafe", and that would be accepted without debate, but we are not there yet. 

It seems that some men (not all men) get stuck on the thought that, because they are not threats, women will not consider them to be one. I would urge these men to instead consider themselves to be the harmless shark; when all a woman can see is your fin, she has no way to know if you are dangerous.

But what about....?

I have lost count of the number of times, when discussing the issue of women's safety when walking alone, the other person has raised a variation of: "What about men being assaulted, what about men being attacked, what about men being murdered, what about women being perpetrators?"

For absolute clarity and the avoidance of any/all doubt:

Those facts do not invalidate these ones:

Why are women afraid to walk alone? The answer comes down to odds; odds which are disproportionately stacked against women.

The BE LADS campaign saw immediate and widespread success due to the simplicity of the message. BE LADS does not vilify one gender over another, it recognises that most men have no intention of being a threat to a woman and it helps to address why women are justified in feeling apprehensive when walking alone.

Ultimately perpetrator behaviour needs to change, but until such a time where the cultural shift needed actually happens, initiatives like BE LADS can help to bridge the gap and help to alleviate fears for women when they walk alone. 

Poppy Murray is a writer, public speaker and campaigner from Guernsey. She is currently working with the island's Committee for Home Affairs and Bailiwick Law Enforcement to modernise the liquor licence requirements to include prevention and reporting measures for incidents of sexual assault, harassment and drink spiking. Poppy would be keen to hear from anyone interested in adopting the campaign as a crime prevention measure in their local community. You can contact Poppy via poppyjcmurray@outlook.com 

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