by Ann Kramer
“We shouldn’t have to be jaywalking alone into our future. We shouldn’t have to hope we get home safe. We should be certain that we will.”
That’s how Megan, a local woman and women’s rights activist in her early 20s, finished her powerful testimony at an online vigil for Sarah Everard, whose murdered body was found in woodland in Kent on March 10th, and Blessing Olusegun, who was found dead on Bexhill beach on September 18th last year.
Two dead women. Sadly it is not unusual for women to be attacked and murdered. It’s happened before.
This time, however, Sarah Everard’s murder has sparked a huge wave of sadness and anger, as women all over the country have spoken vehemently about their experiences of being harassed and attacked, of walking with car keys between their fingers, wearing bright clothes, pretending to be talking on mobile phones, looking over their shoulders, counting the seconds until they arrive safely back at home.
They are angry and they’re tired of not being listened to.
Anger and frustration are being expressed here in Hastings and St Leonards. Over the last few months there have been a series of male attacks on women. Last summer a man attacked Kay Early while she was walking her dog in Alexandra Park. It was daylight and there were people around.
The man punched her in the face and kicked her repeatedly before running off. Kay was left with cuts, bruises and a black eye. She was traumatised and today is battling PTSD symptoms.
Following the attack, a 36-year-old man was arrested but has since been released. No one has been prosecuted and the case has been dropped because of lack of evidence.
On Sunday March 21st a teenage girl was sexually assaulted in Alexandra Park – a 14-year-old boy was subsequently arrested. A few days later, also in the park, there was yet another assault on a woman, by a man.
Greater park safety: 20,000 sign petition
Kay Early and her friend Claire Noble have set up a petition demanding greater safety measures in the park. Signatures have flooded in; by April 5th numbers were approaching 20,000.
Highlighting the dangers for women, they are calling for 24-hour CCTV in the park, nighttime lighting and a constant police presence. There is huge public support.
Hastings Borough Council (HBC) is sympathetic. The Deputy Leader, Colin Fitzgerald, and Councillor Maya Evans met with Kay Early and Claire Noble to discuss their ideas for an Indigo Path and will be meeting them again after the local elections to feedback the council’s ideas for moving this plan forward.
Demonstrating its commitment to ending male violence against women, HBC is continuing its White Ribbon accreditation.
The Safer Hastings and Safer Rother joint committee safety partnership says it will: “…prioritise tackling violence and harassment against women through a wide variety of services and responses”, including making “women’s safety a standing item on the community safety partnerships and holding each other to account”.
Significantly, Councillor Paul Barnett, co-chair of the partnership and lead councillor for Urban Environment and Community Safety, recognises that the ‘shocking reminder’ of the level of violence against women comes as no surprise to women because, ‘sadly, they experience harassment, abuse and inappropriate behaviour from men regularly’.
Recent attacks only the tip of the iceberg
He suggests men need to listen to what women are saying and consider how they can change their behaviour. He has been struck by how many women have said: “…only men can make the change we all need”.
Not surprisingly, Labour women councillors and candidates for the upcoming local elections have plenty to say and they are determined to make change. Like many other women, they recognise that the recent attacks on local women are just the tip of the iceberg.
According to a UN Women UK report published in March , 71 per cent of women experience some form of sexual harassment in a public space and it’s not just public spaces. Evidence is pouring in about an endemic rape culture and sexual violence towards girls and teenagers in schools, both private and state.
Little wonder that Ofsted has launched an immediate enquiry, encouraged to do so not least by testimonies sent to the Everyone’s Invited website, which so far has received just shy of 14,000 testimonies.
“We should be wary of seeing violent men as an aberration that can be fixed by things like tighter policing and CCTV”
Councillor Ruby Cox is standing for County in Tressell and Old Hastings in the elections on May 6th and recognises the wider picture: “We should be very wary of seeing misogyny and violence against women as a problem that is somehow ‘out there’, and violent men as an aberration that can be fixed by things like tighter policing and CCTV…they are more a symptom of the state of our society, which is riddled with countless forms of misogyny, many of which are regarded as normal behaviour or harmless fun.”
Citing the way society judges women by age, appearance and sexual availability, and referring to the prime minister’s own misogyny, she says: “…it’s little wonder that inadequate men feel justified in asserting themselves by attacking a woman”.
For Ruby: “Men and women have to work together to recognise internalised misogyny… and call it out.”
It is something she intends to do if elected to East Sussex County Council and is sure there will be plenty of opportunities.
‘”I applaud the young women who have raised this issue. It is through activism like this that we can bring about change”
Ali Roark, standing for the borough seat of Tressell and county seat of Baird and Ore says: “The Ofsted investigation into sexual abuse in schools shows that this is a much wider issue than our local park.
“There is a huge problem within our culture on so many levels. I applaud the young women who have highlighted the issue of safety in the park and it is through actions and activism such as this that we can bring about lasting change.”
If Ali is elected, she says she is committed to working with local people to find solutions to the immediate issue of women’s safety, but says: “We need to be having wider conversations around the culture and society we live in that continues to perpetuate myths around sexual violence…and fails to adequately educate our younger generations.”
If you are a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, a list of organisations that can help is published on Hastings Online .
Ann Kramer is a freelance non-fiction writer and chair of Hastings Women’s Voice. The group gathered testimonies for a video, This is Not Love, launched in March this year on Isolation Station Hastings