'This isn't just a London problem, we feel scared in Norfolk too'

Woman walking alone. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Woman walking alone in Norwich - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

The disappearance and discovery of 33-year-old Sarah Everard has shocked the nation and although the full circumstances are not yet known it has led to a wider debate about women's safety. But, as Sarah Burgess found out, it isn't just a London problem, women here in Norfolk and Waveney regularly feel their safety threatened too.

Natasha Harpley, a 41-year-old who has lived in the county for most of her life, is as qualified as any to talk about how women in the area feel on the subject of personal safety.

The now-councillor has faced multiple issues with men over the years, and disagrees with any notion that violence and intimidation towards women when out in public is something which "doesn't happen here".

Natasha Harpley

Natasha Harpley, councillor for Sprowston Central, has been campaigning in recent years to make sending "dick pics" illegal - Credit: Natasha Harpley

She said: "About 18 months ago I was walking down a deserted street at night near where I live. I didn't want to have to pay for a taxi so thought that on this one occasion walking would be fine.

"This big unit of a man came stealthily running up behind me to the point where I could feel the air around him as he passed me. It was horrible, and I screamed. This man hadn't done anything wrong, but if he'd had any sense he would have given me a wide berth, or crossed to the other side of the road.

"Some of it is just a general lack of self-awareness which tells women their personal spaces aren't always totally secure. We're not saying "all men" are guilty. Of course they aren't. But many men do not have the understanding of the culture of fear women live in, and many do not do enough to call it out when with their peers.

"It might just be someone rubbing up against you on the tube, or someone putting their hands around your hips in a pub or a club when they don't need to, but it all adds up. It makes you suspicious of everyone, whether they're violent or not."

Sarah Everard, 33, who left a friend's house in Clapham, south London, on Wednesday evening at around 9pm

The Sarah Everard case has brought widespread attention to the risks women face just by walking alone at night - Credit: PA Media

Ms Harpley said that when she was 18, she was flashed by a man in Norwich and has been sent unsolicited lewd images in the past.

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"These kind of behaviours and experiences, which most women have had, make you distrusting of men everywhere. Yes, it's statistically unlikely that you'll be abducted or flashed when out and about, but that's not the point. The point is you live in fear of that regardless." 

An EDP survey of more than 500 Norfolk and Waveney women revealed as much: just 8.3pc of respondents said they feel safe when walking or travelling alone. By contrast, 36pc said they feel safe "most of the time", 31.6pc said they often feel unsafe and 13.8pc said they always feel unsafe.

Many said they take precautions when out walking, such as carrying keys or scissors in their hands, pre-planning their routes, avoiding listening to music, having a friend on hand to call or in some cases even carrying a rape alarm or pepper spray.

Statistics released as part of the Crime Survey for England and Wales last September also showed that sex offences and stalking and harassment offences were on the rise. Across Norfolk as a whole, there was a 47pc increase in reports of stalking and harassment between the figures for 2019 and those for 2020. 

And while statistics from the same survey - for the year to March 2020 - show that it is "not all men" who are guilty of aggressive behaviour, and that many are victims themselves, the majority of violent crimes, when they are carried out, are indeed perpetrated by men. In three-quarters (82pc) of all violent crimes recorded during that time, the suspects were male.

Another woman in Norfolk, who does not want to be named, said that this isn't a problem confined to the streets. She has been the victim of misogynistic and intimidating behaviour at the haulage company she works at for decades.

In her opinion, because the county is isolated, rural and not particularly diverse, old fashioned views and beliefs tend to "stick around" longer than they would elsewhere.

She said: "Once, I was cornered in an office by two men who told me they didn't want me working there anymore and blocked me from leaving the building. I reported the incident to senior management but nothing was done. Instead, they removed me.

"This was thirty years ago, but I can still see it happening now. A younger colleague of mine was sexually harassed a few months ago. She reported the incidents, and was told she "wouldn't have to see him again" but that he would keep his job. If we don't challenge this behaviour and confront it, how will it ever stop?

"We need to build a place where women aren't threatened anymore, whether that's in a rural county like this one or a big metropolis like London."

What have charities/activists said?

The outcry from activist groups following the death of Sarah Everard has been immense. "Reclaim these Streets" protests have already been planned around the country in an effort to show solidarity with victims of violent crime.

According to Janet Dalrymple, CEO of Safer Places which works to support victims of sexual and domestic abuse, it remains the case even in today's society that women "cannot walk the streets without the awareness that there could be a man or men who will harass them or make abusive, often sexualised, remarks to them".

However, she added that while this is "low level" and threatening to the woman, it is likely to be met with a "where's your sense of humour" type remark if challenged.

The cause of women's fear, she said, is much more likely to be a result of people they know.

"Instances where strangers abuse and harass women in the street is uncommon, but when it comes to men they know it is a totally different story", she said.

"People consider domestic abuse as being "in the home", but actually, when women in abusive relationships leave the home or leave the relationship altogether they are then stalked and harassed.

"When a relationship has ended perpetrators can become obsessive and fixated on the victim and this can escalate if there is not early action - both indoors and out on the streets."

For Mandy Proctor, chief executive of domestic abuse charity Leeway, many women do not leave the house altogether if they have been victims of harassment, stalking or abuse.

She explained that carrying a panic alarm is a good way to alert people you are in danger and need help.

Mandy Proctor, chief executive of Leeway, the charity providing support to those experiencing domestic abuse. Picture...

Mandy Proctor, CEO of Norfolk domestic abuse charity Leeway - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

"Knowing where the nearest safe location, such as a police station or a 24 hour supermarket, on your route home or to and from work is also a useful form of safety planning", she added.

Em Anderson, welfare, community and diversity officer for UEA's students' union, said going out at night can be a key concern for students in particular but that the university was putting measures in place to improve the safety of its students.

She said: "Female students especially can feel vulnerable on nights out, and this can be exacerbated by other factors such as race or sexuality.

"The Sarah Everard case has drawn attention to this for many young women across the country, heightening anger, fear and grief."  

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