As the man responsible for abducting and raping Sarah Everard admits his guilt, my thoughts remain with her family for whom this is not just “a difficult time” but who face a lifetime of loss.
She was walking home when she was attacked and in the sympathy that followed was a strong protest from women and girls about their lack of safety on our streets.
Across the media, but above all on social media, women and girls spoke out about their experiences. It was not just some women and girls but all of them. Women and girls lead very different lives depending on their race, class, region and age, and whether they are disabled or not, lesbian or straight. But the outpouring of complaint showed that this one thing we have in common.
We all face harassment and threat on the street. Half-hearted attempts by some in the media to portray those complaining as “snowflakes” who should see it as a compliment when they are followed down the street or pestered for their number, melted away in the force of evidence of the menace that women and girls face. And it’s nearly always a girl or woman on her own who’s targeted. And often by a group of men
What became completely clear was that a girl in her uniform walking home from school on her own in winter after dark would be followed and menaced not despite being very young but because of it.
We’re talking here about men in cars or vans kerb-crawling a girl or woman on her own, calling out to her to get in the vehicle, asking for her phone number. The fact that it’s totally obvious to him that she not only doesn’t welcome this but is also frightened by it doesn’t stop him.
What sort of society are we if we ignore the complaints and justified fears of women and girls about the threat they are under when they are walking home, from school, work or an evening out?
Of course the answer is that this should not happen and we should no longer accept it as a normal part of life.
We need the signal to go out loud and clear that women and girls are entitled to walk in our streets, day or night, without being subject to uninvited “attention”. And to stop it we need a clear signal to men that they can no longer do it with impunity and a clear reassurance to women and girls that they shouldn’t put up with it, that they can complain and he’ll be punished.
That means we need it to be clearly illegal. There are MPs from all parties who want new laws on this and I have drafted and presented to the House of Commons a raft of new offences which should be included in the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill which we are now considering.
Kerb-crawling is already a criminal offence if the man is trying to buy sex from a woman. This is to protect local communities blighted by kerb-crawling by men looking for prostitutes. But it’s not a criminal offence to harass a woman or girl except for prostitution. It should be. And it should be punishable by revoking his driving license. No man should use his freedom to drive as a license to harass.
At present it’s a criminal offence for a man to repeatedly harass a woman. This is an important law to deal with stalking and domestic abuse. But it’s only an offence if it’s a “course of conduct”.
We need a new law which protects women and girls from men who target them even if they don’t know them.
We’ll all grieve with Sarah Everard’s family as they face the ordeal of the conviction and sentencing of the man who took their daughter’s life. But we can insist that her death becomes the moment when we finally call time on men who harass and intimidate women. It’s not just that women and girls feel unsafe on our streets. They aren’t and we must change that.
And the Met Police have major work to do to analyse why such a dangerous man was a serving police officer.