We like to think that in the UK we have equality between the sexes now. On the statute book, we mostly do. But can we ever be equal while women and girls live our lives in fear of violence from men? Do we even think about this? Or have we just accepted that male violence against women and girls has always been normal and always will be? Women and girls plan our daily lives in anticipation of sexual assault, rape and beating. Is it an instinct we are born with, because of our female sex, that comes with our female reproductive system? Or does it begin that day our mother first tells us to watch out for strange men (what does she mean?), or the day we watch the 5 o’clock news after cartoon-time and see the photo of a woman murdered by her husband?
Outside home, we’re busy making mental calculations and risk assessments. We scan the landscape more expertly than any sat-nav. Should I cycle the scenic route to work by the canal, or take my chances on the main road with the traffic and pollution? Should I stay at the office drinks when my female colleagues have left already? Should I risk the night bus or get a taxi home, when I can’t really spare the money? Should I take that beautiful forest hike alone, or stick to the busy park where I can see other women?
Let’s not pretend: we are always thinking, does the man who followed me off the bus intend to rape me? Do men know how much we watch them and think about them?
We yearn for freedom and adventure, but often women and girls feel safer at home. Except when we don’t feel safer at home. Because we know, for all our fear when we’re out and about, that most violence against us comes from men we know and even love.
We’re not quoting any statistics in this piece, because we know that women and girls massively under-report violence, especially rape and other sexual assault. We keep our reports for late-night confidences to a female friend, when keeping our secrets becomes too intolerable a burden to carry alone. Was it my fault, we ask her? I chose the forest hike. I chose to go back to his place after dinner. I chose to marry him.
We’re called over-cautious, paranoid, irrational, man-hating, hysterical. We seek out the safe spaces where only women and girls gather, because we know we can feel free there. We accompany our children to public toilets, even as they protest they’re too old, because we know what can happen. We sit up late on Saturday night to drive to collect our adult daughters from a party, because we know what can happen.
We know it probably won’t happen today and we worry we’re being over-protective. But we also know if it’s not our child today, it will be another woman’s child. Why take the risk when we will try whatever we can to protect our children and every child?
There can be no equality between the sexes until women and girls can live without fear of male violence.
What can we do? We can start by never calling a woman or girl hysterical because of her rational fear of male violence. Instead, let’s think about why she is afraid and what part we all play in making our culture dangerous for women and girls.
This article is written for the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls, 25 November. To mark the day, here are some practical suggestions:
- Donate to women’s refuges and other charities which support women and children escaping violence.
- Learn how to intervene when you witness violence - https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/what-to-do-if-you-see-sexual-violence/
- Join men against male violence with White Ribbon UK - https://www.whiteribbon.org.uk/
Cover image: “GA72 - EU and UN launch Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls” by UN Women Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse.