On Wednesday 3 March Sarah Everard was reported missing. On 8 March we marked International Women’s Day. As she does every year, Jess Phillips MP did so by reading out in parliament the names of women and girls killed by men in Britain over the previous year. She read out 118 names. On 9 March Wayne Couzens was arrested in connection with Sarah Everard’s disappearance; and on 12 March it was confirmed that her remains had been found and that Wayne Couzens had been charged with her murder.

This grim timeline of events is a horrible reminder of the toll of violence against women and girls. It follows the murder of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in a London park in 2020. Terrible attacks of this kind are rare indeed, but they prompt questions that we all need to face – and in particular all of us involved in the education of girls. These range from the immediate – prompting us to look at how we help and support students, how we make provision for practical measures such as self-defence, how we make time and space for discussion and to share student experience and student voice – to the broader and longer-term. 

Before Wayne Couzen’s arrest, police may certainly have been thinking of the safety of women in the area where Sarah Everard disappeared: but their advice to women not to go out alone reignited protests about victim-blaming and a perceived focus on precautions for female victims, not the prevention of male attackers. Those protests caught flame in the heavy-handed response to vigils and distressing images of mostly male officers forcibly restraining mostly female protestors, who were there to take a stand against male force and male violence.

One of the many larger questions we need to ask addresses the fundamental gender issues involved as girls and boys grow up. Of course boys and men are also victims of attacks, and of course boys also face fear and the threat of violence. But there is a difference. Society puts women in a position where it is routine to share advice about not listening to music on dark streets or holding keys in fists ready in case of need or knowing where the late-night shops are on the way home or responding to aggressive verbal assault and name-calling. For many or most men this is simply not the case, and on those occasions where boys and men do discuss these issues, they do not do so sharing a near-universal experience of harassment.

We need to find a way to acknowledge this difference and express solidarity and alliance. The refrain ‘not all men’ does not help. Indignant claims and protests on men and boys’ behalf do not help. False equivalences, as if suffering is some kind of competition, do not help. All this is so much sad distraction. ‘Not all men’ is reminiscent of the phrase ‘all lives matter’ issued as an angry response to the Black Lives Matter campaign. Of course not all men, and of course all lives matter: no-one is claiming otherwise. They are just seeking fair acknowledgement of specific and profoundly serious problems. Why the hostile defensiveness?

We have to be able to state, simply, as Anna Birley did this week, that ‘women aren’t the reason women get attacked’, and to address the fact that over 90% of fatal attacks against women and men are carried out by men, without sparking resentment. We have to accept that addressing specific violence against women and against gay people and trans people and all minorities who experience harassment and assault is part of addressing violence against all people. More than that: it is part of addressing violence against what it means to us all to be human.

Girls and boys and women and men have to work together to fight male violence and problematic cultures that excuse and perpetuate it, just as we have to work together to fight gender-based discrimination. Not because it is an issue that is central to the equality and freedom and dignity of women; but because it is an issue that is central to the equality and freedom and dignity of us all.

Will le Fleming, Head