LONDON (Reuters) – Women in Britain poured out their fears and anger over how unsafe they feel walking the streets after the disappearance of a woman in London and the arrest of a police officer on suspicion of her kidnap and murder.
Sarah Everard, 33, was last seen at 9:30 p.m. on March 3 as she walked home from a friend’s house in south London. Her image, smiling at the camera or caught on CCTV that evening, has been splashed across British newspapers all week.
Anxiety turned to grief after news late on Wednesday that police investigating Everard’s disappearance had found remains in a wood outside London, resulting in an outpouring of personal accounts by women of their own experiences and fears.
“The disappearance of Sarah and the absolute tragedy around that has really touched a nerve with a lot of women,” said Anna Birley, 31, one of the organisers of a planned “Reclaim These Streets” vigil to honour Everard and demand change.
“We feel really angry that it’s an expectation put on women that we need to change our behaviour to stay safe. The problem isn’t women, the problem is that women aren’t safe on our streets,” said Birley.
Women flooded social media with posts about the steps they take when out alone at night to keep safe, including clutching keys to use as a weapon and wearing trainers to help them run. Many raged at the violence against women that made them feel they had to take such measures.
Others detailed a catalogue of incidents of harassment by men in public over the decades since they were schoolgirls.
“These are so powerful because each and every woman can relate,” Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel said. “Every woman should feel safe to walk on our streets without fear of harassment or violence.”
Legislator Jess Phillips, the opposition Labour Party’s policy chief on domestic violence, read out in the chamber of the House of Commons the names of all 118 women murdered by men in the United Kingdom last year.
“The message that needs to be sent is that male violence is something that has to be tackled and challenged and the justice system and society has to wake up to that,” said Phillips.
The head of London’s police force, Cressida Dick, said she and her colleagues were “utterly appalled” at news that a police officer had been arrested in connection with Everard’s abduction, sparking a wave of shock and anger.
Police on Thursday were given extra time to question the officer, whose job is to guard diplomatic buildings, on suspicion of kidnap, murder and indecent exposure.
A woman in her 30s, who media said was his wife, was also detained on suspicion of assisting an offender, but has since been released on police bail.
England’s police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, said it had launched an investigation into the London police force’s handling of the case.
The arrested officer was reported to police on Feb. 28 over allegations of indecent exposure in a south London fast food restaurant, several days before Everard disappeared.
The watchdog also said it would look closer at how the suspect sustained head injuries that required hospital treatment, which police said occurred while he was alone in his cell.
Dick sought to reassure women, saying it was “incredibly rare” for a woman to be abducted from the streets.
“But I completely understand that despite this, women in London and the wider public, particularly those in the area where Sarah went missing, will be worried and may well be feeling scared,” she said.
Although the remains have not yet been formally identified, Everard’s family paid tribute, saying their “beautiful daughter Sarah was taken from us and we are appealing for any information that will help to solve this terrible crime”.
“Sarah was bright and beautiful – a wonderful daughter and sister. She was kind and thoughtful, caring and dependable,” the family said in a statement.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was shocked and deeply saddened by developments in the case.
The “Reclaim These Streets” vigil will take place on Saturday in Clapham Common in southwest London, near where Everard was last seen.
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden and David Milliken; Editing by Estelle Shirbon, Mark Heinrich, Bernadette Baum and Daniel Wallis)