Until women can walk safely at night, there is no equality

For years women have felt unsafe in the streets of their own cities. Has anything changed in the last six months?

September 24, 2021
 Members of the public attend a vigil in memory of Sabina Nessa, and in solidarity against violence against women, at Pegler Square in Kidbrooke, south London PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Members of the public attend a vigil in memory of Sabina Nessa, and in solidarity against violence against women, at Pegler Square in Kidbrooke, south London PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

 On the night of 18th September, 28-year-old Sabina Nessa was walking less than five minutes from her home to meet a friend in southeast London. Originally from Bedfordshire, she had been a teacher at a primary school in Lewisham for about a year. According to her cousin, she was “the most caring person—kindest, sweetest girl you could meet,” who loved her job and her two cats. Nessa had her whole life ahead of her, a life that police believe was taken from her by an attacker who may have been a stranger. Her cousin told the BBC that her parents were “inconsolable still, understandably so, to hear of their daughter being taken away from them by some cowardly man." 

This latest tragedy must prompt questions over what improvements have actually been made to safeguard women’s safety over recent months. And the answer is uncomfortable, even alarming. Nessa’s death comes just six months after women gathered on Clapham Common to remember the life of Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a serving metropolitan police officer, Wayne Couzens, when she was walking home from a friend’s flat. The outpouring of grief and anger after Everard’s murder felt like a watershed moment, as women began to reflect on the constant burden of responsibility they carry for protecting themselves against male violence. 

As campaigners took to social media, another horrifying case—which had received muted press coverage at the time—garnered renewed attention. In June 2020, Nicole Smallman and her sister Bibaa Henry were murdered in a park—their bodies only found when Henry’s partner, Adam Stone, searched for them himself. Two unnamed police officers were then arrested by the Independent Office for Police Conduct for taking “non-official and inappropriate photographs” at the crime scene. The national conversation began also to address the comparative lack of respect afforded to victims who were women of colour, both by the police and the media. 

But in the six months since society supposedly underwent an epiphany, becoming newly alert to the dangers faced by women and girls, has anything really changed?  

In July, Couzens pleaded guilty to Everard’s murder, and the IOPC released a statement about four ongoing investigations that had been launched in the wake of her death. One of the probes concerned the alleged failure of Kent Police to investigate Couzens over an allegation of indecent exposure in 2015—the thought that police might have missed the opportunity, six years ago, to stop Sarah Everard’s killer is difficult for many to bear. Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, called for a full public inquiry into “police failures and misconduct and the wider culture of misogyny.” So far, no such public inquiry has been launched. In the same month, the Home Office released its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, after a call for evidence which attracted 180,000 responses. The strategy promised a £5m Safety of Women at Night Fund, focused on the prevention of violence against women in public spaces.  

However, for many experts and campaigners, this is far from enough. Felicia Willow, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, says that while the government’s VAWG strategy is a “welcome step,” it “lacks ambition and is massively underfunded. Male violence against women and girls is a complex and significant problem, and the UK government needs to take a holistic and serious approach to respond to it. This [should include] providing more funding to implement new measures, as well as [providing] more stable funding to organisations working in the sector.” Her sentiments are echoed by Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, who says: “We're seeing an awful pattern emerge, where the death of a woman gets press attention and the authorities propose piecemeal, half-baked measures like additional street lighting, undercover cops, or a charter for bars and clubs to sign up to. All of these measures fundamentally fail to actually address the root causes of this violence.” 

So, what kind of measures could make our cities safer? Yasminah Beebeejaun, associate professor at the Bartlett School of Planning believes an enormous cultural shift is needed to recognise the deep impact of misogyny and harassment in women’s lives, and that women and women’s advocacy groups need to be actively involved in city planning. “Cities are mediated through planning but also through assumptions of who should be in places and when. The idea that cities have been designed for us all equally has long been challenged by feminist architects, planners, and historians.” Beebeejaun believes that there is a need “to understand specific interventions that would improve urban space from the perspective of women and girls, taking into account class and ethnicity, but there are few sustained efforts to do this in the UK led by planners.”

She points to projects that have been successful in enabling women to enjoy greater freedom in their cities, such as gender mainstreaming in planning in Vienna, which included redesigning parks to encourage girls to use them for sport, and extending the width of a kilometre of pavement, making it easier to navigate with prams. She also commends Project Guardian on Transport for London, “that worked to train staff and the police to take sexual harassment more seriously, given that many [victims] did not report it because they believed they would not be treated with respect. The project underscores the continuing and persistent problems—there are so many ways the city is exclusionary, from the design and number of public toilets, baby-changing facilities, underpasses, the circuitous routes we are expected to take to avoid certain spaces.”

Since Everard’s murder in March, 77 women have been killed where a man has been the principal suspect, according to according to Counting Dead Women—a group that tracks femicide in the UK. On average, a woman in the UK is killed by a man every three days. As Nicole Westmarland, an expert in violence against women at Durham University says, “There has been more awareness of violence against women and girls in public spaces over recent months. However, awareness in itself is not enough. There needs to be a massive shift in the seriousness with which all forms of violence against women and girls is responded to, and this shift isn’t going to happen with a few awareness-raising campaigns or one-off interventions.”