Why ‘she was just walking home’ feeds a victim-blaming narrative

A list of women's names killed by men at a vigil
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The murder of Sabina Nessa as she walked through a London park has, rightly, shaken women across the country yet again. It seems like only days ago we were reading similar headlines about Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, and Nicole Smallman.

As women, we are sick and tired of being told to moderate our behaviour. “Follow the rules”, they say. “Don’t walk alone in the dark”. “Don’t be drunk”. “Don’t dress a certain way”. How, exactly, does moderating our behaviour in any way address the root issue: the misogyny entrenched in our society? As women, it’s not our responsibility to make sure we are safe. It’s our most basic right to be safe. If you’re a man reading this, it’s your responsibility to tackle misogyny within our society. Please don’t respond with, “but not all men”. Please don’t ignore the fact that this is a systemic failing that you’re a part of.

The majority of women aren’t actually murdered on the street

According to Counting Dead Women, at least 108 women have been killed by men, (or where a man is the principal suspect), in 2021 so far. On average, this year, a man has killed a woman every 2.5 days. Think about this. Every 2.5 days. This figure is far greater than the stories covered by news headlines. Usually, it’s young women, murdered while walking on our streets who are deemed worthy of mainstream media attention. “She was just walking home,” we now hear all the time.

But the majority of women aren’t killed while walking down a city street. The Femicide Census names all of the 1,425 women killed by men in the UK over a decade, between 2009 and 2018. It has found that 62% of women are killed by their current or former partner. Others are murdered by relatives. In 92% of the cases, the women knew their killer. Many of the women had lived for years in abusive relationships, subjected to coercive control. In fact, the researchers argue that coercive control in a relationship is key to understanding whether a woman is in danger of being murdered.

The ages of the 108 women killed by men this year vary greatly: 71-year-old Christina Arnold was killed by her husband of fifty years. 85-year-old Loretta Herman’s son was charged with her murder. And as I write this, the ex-partner of 26-year-old Bethany Vincent has stood up in court and denied her murder. Vincent was stabbed to death in a house, along with her nine-year-old son.

Don’t ignore domestic abuse victims

By giving the greatest headlines to those who were “just walking home”, or who were attacked on the street by strangers, are we somehow victim-blaming the women who were murdered by people they know, inside their homes? Are those killed by their husbands seen as less innocent? As a society, do we see them as complicit in their abuse because they weren’t murdered by a stranger, or because they didn’t walk away from their abuser?

The Canary spoke to Alice Chambers, who works with survivors of domestic abuse. She said:

Read on...

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We know that when women are killed it is usually by someone they know – two women are killed a week by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. Yet it is often when the perpetrator is a stranger that the story hits the headlines and protests ensue. What does this tell us about our views of domestic abuse victims?

Chambers continued:

Women are often blamed for the harm perpetrated against them by men. It seems this is even more so when women are attacked by their partners or ex-partners, with common responses being that she must have driven him to it or that she should have left him. Women killed by their partners and ex-partners are just as worthy of our compassion and rage as those killed by strangers and they are in no way responsible for what happened to them. We must get educated about domestic abuse and challenge these harmful myths.

State failings

Independent magazine Hate Zine, summaries our society nicely when it says:

[Women’s] behaviour is constantly scrutinised, dissected and micromanaged by a society which is somehow still able to ignore the entrenched misogyny within.

I have already written about how the state should be held accountable for the murder of women. Back in December 2020 I wrote:

Under UK law, a perpetrator receives a minimum sentence of 15 years for murder if the weapon he used was already in the home where he committed the crime. But if the perpetrator takes a weapon to different location and kills someone, he is sentenced for a minimum of 25 years. It’s a travesty that the murder of someone in a home can be seen as a less serious murder than one on the street. And because most women are killed in their homes, this law can be seen as systemically sexist.

And in April 2021 I wrote about how the government rejected amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill: amendments that might have protected women more.

The issue is men

By focusing only on the victims who are attacked on the streets, it’s easy for the government and the police to come up with half-hearted solutions, like lighting our streets better, or giving us suggestions not to walk alone. And by ignoring all those domestic abuse victims murdered by men, the state don’t have to face the actual issue at hand. And that is male violence.

The issue isn’t about whether we are safe alone at night. We aren’t even safe in our own homes, surrounded by those who are supposed to love us the most. So while we grieve Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard, remember, too, 85-year-old Loretta Herman, 71-year-old Christina Arnold and more than one hundred more women in 2021 who have barely made news headlines. Let’s continue to shout all of their names in rage as we fight against entrenched misogyny.

Featured image via a Bristol activist. Used with permission

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