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Editorial We must all stand for women’s right to Reclaim These Streets

WOMEN from London to Edinburgh are being told to stay at home rather than attend Reclaim These Streets vigils in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard.

Though the advice is justified with reference to public health restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it smacks of cynical use of these powers to prevent public protest.

Scottish Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman asks that we light a candle or engage in social media in Everard’s memory, and says she will mark her own private vigil to remember the huge numbers of women who continue to lose their lives to male violence.

There is a place for such observances. But they do not “reclaim these streets.”

The thoughts of the country are on the appalling abduction and murder of a young woman, but alongside distress and compassion for Everard and her loved ones there is palpable anger.

Women have already raised their voices — on social media and elsewhere — on living with the ever-present threat of male violence. 

On personal experiences of stalking, harassment, assault, on the oppressive and continuous need to exercise vigilance and practise avoidance strategies in a sometimes futile bid to stay safe while going about their daily lives.

Women should not have to live with this, let alone risk their lives because of it.

Establishment and liberal narratives depict women’s oppression as a historical phenomenon, largely resolved by universal suffrage and equalities legislation.

Where inequality is statistically undeniable (as with the gender pay gap), it is usually seen as a residual problem diminishing with time (though the gender pay gap is growing), or one that can be addressed by identifying and correcting for unconscious biases to ensure more women make it into the boardroom or the Cabinet.

This picture fails to address the shocking scale of sexual harassment of women and girls and statistics indicating rising violence. 

A rise in domestic violence has been linked to the lockdowns over the past year — though the rise in “intimate partner homicides” is, of course, a rise in men killing their partners, not women killing theirs.

Lenient sentences such as the five years given to Anthony Williams last month for the deliberate killing of his wife Ruth in “an act of great violence” condone a worldview in which men can “just snap” and lash out with sustained, lethal violence, without afterwards being held fully responsible.

But even before lockdown, schools were reporting sharp rises in child-on-child sexual assault, a trend almost certainly linked to universal access to online pornography.

Women are right to “reclaim these streets” to assert their right to be safe in public places, and to deliver this message publicly and collectively.

They are right to deliver a wake-up call on the scale of the problem — the purpose of the “every woman you know…” posts which have gone viral on social media in recent days, recounting universal experiences of dangerous male behaviour.

Like the killing of George Floyd last May, the killing of Sarah Everard — also, it seems, by a policeman — is simultaneously a human tragedy and a common event. The oppressed, as then, are standing up.

Authorities cannot be allowed to hide behind Covid safety measures to prohibit this. Demonstrations should be socially distanced and masked — but as Reclaim These Streets organiser Anna Birley points out, the planned Clapham demonstration arranged for these precautions.

A government which fails to heed scientific advice on school returns, that is still allowing employers to require staff to travel to non-essential work and failing to provide regular testing for those who have to go to work, is not afraid that political demonstrations will spread infection.

As with its crackdown on the nurses’ pay protest whose organiser, a mental health nurse, was fined £10,000 in Manchester last week, it is afraid of defiance, resistance and revolt.

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