If you go into the woods tonight…

The death of Joanna Yeates, the 25 year old architect from Bristol, during the Christmas period was a chilling reminder that violence against women – just like the news cycle – doesn’t stop for the holidays.

The media fanfare around the incident has hardly been without fault, so I was buoyed to read Greg Reardon’s statement in which he honoured the memory of his girlfriend and shone a light on the shoddy practices of the press to assume the guilt of the ‘eccentric’ landlord before any formal accusations had been made. Greg was in my year at school – so there’s also that mawkish sense of presumed insight, because it happened to someone I vaguely knew once upon a time.

But the thing which rubs the most are the ‘fresh warnings’ made by Bristol Police about the ‘usual’ safety precautions women should be taking so as not to endanger themselves:

“Naturally, we ask the public to take the usual safety precautions. Women should avoid walking home alone after dark, householders should try to keep their premises secure and just take care when answering the door to strangers.”

And so it follows, all women walking alone are asking for it, assume your house will be robbed at all times, and people knocking on your door are axe-wielding nutters.

The difficult part for me, is that we’re now in a position where we’ve normalised behaviour to such a degree that it is unusual practice for women to walk home alone at night. This, in turn, means we imply culpability on the part of the woman if she gets attacked, mugged, raped or killed, because she wasn’t following the ‘usual’ safety precautions. Safety precautions which imply that in 2011 in the UK it is still unacceptable for a woman to be without a male escort, or to be banded by a group of female friends, when it is dark outside.

I have argued this before: I cannot live in a society where we readily limit women’s already restricted freedoms, in the name of safety. Violence against women at night does not happen because women are walking home by themselves, but because there are violent men in their neighbourhood. You don’t prevent rape by walking home with your mate, you prevent rape by prosecuting rapists and by educating men on the devastating impact this violent act has.

Let us be clear. Bristol Police are doing what they can to solve a case which is devastating, but all too common. Their advice is tepid prevention, not cure. Violent acts, like the one that happened to Joanna Yeates, will continue whilst we live in a society where women are treated unequally and without respect. Promoting the ‘usual’ safety precautions only serves to feed the fear – and the more we continue fearing other people, the less likely we ever are to understanding why horrific things happen to good people.

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