Monday, 20 May 2013

Living in fear; the non-stop media whirlwind of violence against women and children

Every morning I turn on the radio and another family TV stalwart of the 60s, 70s or 80s is proclaimed a sexual predator, a rapist, a paedophile. The next item will relate to the recent kidnap or murder of a small child. The following item gives more details about the three women kidnapped a decade ago as teenagers, living imprisoned while surrounded by their unsuspecting neighbours.

As a human being, let alone a woman and a mother, I can't help but feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this violence. Incidents from the past, incidents in the present produce a terrifying blur where the world seems very, very dangerous. These tragic figures on the television take hold in your psyche. The familiar details are the worst. The fact that April Jones' mother let her play out because April had thrown a strop and they had given in. As though letting her play outside with her friends was so wrong. How was her mother to know her child was at such risk? Haven't we all just given in for a moment's peace?

When we plan a holiday, I think of Maddy McCann. When I lose sight of my daughter for a moment in a shopping centre, I think of James Boulger. A school girl walking home alone could be Milly Dowler.

Paranoid mother? Maybe. But, as women, we have all experienced some degree of threatening behaviour or sexual harassment. As a naked child alone in the bathroom of a holiday let, I remember an old man watching me through the window from his garden before my father came in and hurriedly closed the curtains. When I was 14, someone put a hand up my skirt at a crowded bus stop in Italy. When I was 23, a drunk followed me home from work and threatened to rape me. When I started work at a large London hospital, self-defence training and a branded rape alarm were standard issue. In fact, it was a married senior consultant who plied me with chocolates as a student nurse, offered me lifts and kept calling my mobile until my other half one day answered it and the calls mysteriously stopped. I don't wear heels if I am leaving the house on my own because I feel vulnerable - I don't want to be tottering along when I might need to be running, running as fast as I can.

How do I protect my children? What advice do I give them? What tools do they need? A mobile phone, a rape alarm, trainers? To learn the most effective way to kick a man in the balls so he let's go? I don't want to bring up my children as paranoid wrecks, living in a world of "stranger danger". I want them to live life to the full. But I will always worry about them.

When we first moved out of London to our little patch by the sea, my vision of utopia was crushed by the headline in the local paper. It was about the conviction of a local man, formerly a police support officer, who had tried to rape a woman after chatting her up in a pub in the town. She had managed to escape, running naked from the waist down to her house. It is naive to think it only happens to other people, in big cities, far from here.

Of course, the reality is that in the UK, in the Western world as a whole, no matter how poor the police are at convicting rapists, stalkers or paedophiles, we are still safer than in many other areas where violence against women and children is the norm. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, nearly 40% of women have been exposed to sexual violence such as rape. In Nicaragua, more than 14,000 cases were reported between 1998 and 2008. Two thirds of the victims were under the age of 17. It is truly horrifying and hard to see how this culture of sexual violence can be transformed, be it as a tool of war or a domestic commonplace.

The thing that gets me from my own personal experience of being followed is this. When I had made it to a place of relative safety, a busy street corner in an affluent area of London, my would-be attacker watching me menacingly from across the road having announced that he was going to F*** me, for an hour I was sobbing so hard with fear I couldn't speak..and no one stopped and asked me what the matter was or whether they could help.

I was frantic with fear and uncertainty. I was terrified of leading this man back to my empty flat, I couldn't phone the police because I wouldn't be able to make myself understood, the men behind the counter in the corner shop thought I was over-reacting. My boyfriend was an hour away.

In the end, I got hold of my Dad who whisked me away, shaking hysterically in the car. I never reported it to the police. I came to no physical harm, what could I say? I was lucky. But it could have turned out differently. After experiencing that level of sexual intimidation, I sure as hell am more vigilant about looking after the people around me. What if it was my little girl sobbing on a street corner? What if I couldn't get there in time?

Yes, that's my big conclusion I guess. If someone had looked a little harder, been a bit more ready to intervene when they saw something unusual, maybe a lot of the awful cases we hear about would have been prevented. Don't be paranoid, but be aware. It's back to that whole "community" thing again. Look after every child as if they were your own. One day, you may well rely on the kindness of strangers to protect yours.


  1. Chilling. Thanks for sharing.
    I had and experience once of being followed home from the bus stop to near my flat. He said nothing but I felt very strongly that I was in danger. Luckily I went into the (Turkish owned) local shop where a couple of brothers ran the store. We always chatted and they asked what was wrong as I was visibly shaken. I pointed out the man now hovering on the other side of the street. "Fuck off" they shouted to him. "She's with us" said one of the brothers and he walked into the street menacingly. The guy went away. I stayed in the shop 5 minutes then one of them walked me home. I've never been so relieved. Violence against women and children is a fact of life even in our own country. That's why I support 1 billion rising and plan to teach my children (boys) not only not to be violent but that they must rally against a culture that accepts rape and violence.


  2. To avoid being totally man-hating, the GoodMenProject gives me hope and perspective Definitely good reading for parents thinking about how to raise kids with a sense of gender equality and consideration for others.