MPs have spoken out about “the menace of male violence against women” and “disgusting victim blaming” as the disappearance of Sarah Everard leaves the nation reeling.
The International Women’s Day debate on Thursday saw figures from across the political spectrum voice anger and sadness, as well as frustration at enduring gender inequality.
On Wednesday Scotland Yard announced human remains had been found in Ashford, Kent, in the search for the 33-year-old and a Met Police officer has been arrested on suspicion of murder.
Everard disappeared on March 3 in Clapham, south London, on her way home from a friend’s house.
This week thousands of women have been sharing their fear of male violence on social media.
Conservative former minister Maria Miller, who opened the Commons debate, paid tribute to Everard, telling MPs: “Her abduction has sent shockwaves across the UK. Sarah did everything to avoid danger and, let’s be very clear, women are not the problem here.
“But for many women this news story will bring back memories of threatening situations they have found themselves in through no fault of their own; being sexually harassed on the streets, walking home from meeting friends, anonymous threats of physical violence on social media, sexually assaulted in plain sight in rush hour on public transport on the way to work.
“Many choose not to talk about this, choose not to report it for fear of not being believed or taken seriously – but the research shows these sorts of events are parts of women’s everyday life and that is why what happened to Sarah Everard feels so very close to home.”
Former minister Harriet Harman was the first to raise Everard’s case, as she criticised Met commissioner Cressida Dick.
She said: “Women will find no reassurance at all in the Metropolitan Commissioner’s statement that, and I quote: ‘It is extremely rare for a woman to be abducted off the street’.
“Women know abduction and murder is just the worst end of a spectrum of everyday male threat to women. When the police advise women don’t go out at night on their own, women ask why do they have to be subjected to an informal curfew?
“It is not women who are the problem here, it is men, and the criminal justice system fails women and lets men off the hook. Whether it is rape or whether it is domestic homicide, women are judged and blamed.”
MPs fell silent as shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips read out the names of almost 120 women killed in the UK over the last 12 months where a man has been convicted or charged as the primary perpetrator.
She did not include Everard, whose death has not been confirmed.
She told the Commons: “There has been much debate at what I would say at the end of the list. Her name rings out across all of our media.
“We have all prayed that the name of Sarah Everard would never be on any list.
“Let’s pray every day and work every day to make sure nobody’s name ends up on this list again.”
Ahead of reading out the list, Phillips told the Commons: “In this place, we count what we care about. We count the vaccines done, the number of people on benefits, we rule or oppose based on a count and we obsessively track that data. We love to count data of our own popularity.
“However, we don’t currently count dead women. No government study is done into the patterns every year of the data of victims of domestic abuse who are killed, die by suicide or die suddenly.
“Dead women is a thing we’ve all just accepted as part of our daily lives. Dead women is just one of those things.
“Killed women are not vanishingly rare. Killed women are common.”
Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy challenged the “disgusting victim shaming” following the disappearance of Everard, who lived in her constituency.
She told the Commons: “Sarah’s disappearance has left so many women feeling unsafe and with the theme of International Women’s Day, I choose to challenge the disgusting victim shaming that we have seen since Sarah’s disappearance.
“It should go without saying that victims of gender violence are not to blame. Sarah did nothing wrong, all she did was walk home.
“It should not be luck that sees us home safely at night, it should be our fundamental right to be respected by all.”
Caroline Nokes, Conservative chairwoman of the women and equalities committee, said there had been an outpouring of stories from women about how they seek to protect themselves when outside.
She said: “We all know the reality is you will not be attacked by a stranger but the fear is there, and the fear is real.”
Speaking to the Commons People podcast, Caroline Nokes also shared her own fears over male violence, saying: “I think we all walk home with our keys, whether it’s getting into your car with your car keys primed at the ready or walking with your house key, literally in your fist with one key poking out so that if someone attacks me I can take their eye out.”
She added: “And I do it literally walking over Westminster bridge when I leave parliament, when it’s dark.
“I get my keys out of my handbag so there is no delay getting in the front door of my flat, so that if somebody does attack me I at least have the chance to strike him back and then run like hell.
“And I go to work in my trainers and change into shoes sometimes when I’m there and go home again in my trainers because I can’t run in heels.”
Nokes also revealed how she felt followed one evening at Southampton Parkway railway station.
She said: “It was late at night and it was dark and my car was on the seventh floor of the multi-storey car park.
“And a man followed me literally matching me step for step the whole way up those stairs.
“But when we got to floor six he just looked at me and said: ‘I’m not following you, my car’s just parked up here’.
“And it was the feeling of relief that he’d actually said that to me and I suddenly just felt reassured because I had gone up six flights of stairs being terrified that I was being followed to my car and what the hell do I do, and was my handbag heavy enough to clonk him round the head.
“So yeah, sure I can relate to every story that we’ve seen on social media and the horror that a youngish woman has gone missing on her usual walk home and then a week later you find that she’s been killed.
“We know that it’s rare… but it doesn’t mean that women’s perception that it might happen to them is not real.
“Of course it’s real and it leaves a whole range of us living in fear and that’s not right.”
Conservative former minister Andrea Leadsom told the Commons: “Today I feel pretty angry and sad. Angry that women walking home in the dark have to be scared of the person walking closely behind them.
“And saddened because for far too many women even getting home safely doesn’t mean they’re safe from harm. I say to all colleagues right across the House: let’s never let party politics get in the way of protecting women and girls.”
A number of male MPs also shared frustration.
Conservative MP and Father of the House Peter Bottomley said: “We all need to change and I hope we can get to the stage where I don’t have to carry a whistle on my keys, and my daughters and granddaughters don’t have to either.
“People need to feel safe at work, when travelling and in their domestic circumstances. For that, we need to find a way of people having the patience and the courage to challenge behaviours in ourselves and others which make other people feel both threatened and to suffer violence – whether physical or mental or economic.”
Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin called for further action in increasing the number of female MPs.
Jenkin, who chairs the liaison committee, said: “I am the representative man that is here to take the punishment and the blame, and I do that, I don’t shirk from that responsibility because despite everything that’s been achieved for women’s rights, this debate proves that this is not a job that has been done, it is still very much a job to do.”
He continued: “We need a political settlement in which it’s impossible for decisions to be made which fail to recognise that while men and women are equal, we have very different life experiences, which means we need more women in the room when decisions are being formed.”