This past week has seen an outpouring of grief for so many victims of sexual harassment and assault. The kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard, a woman who was just trying to walk home, and who did everything that she could to keep herself safe, has incited such anguish in response to her treatment. Her case symbolises the endemic violence that women face in a society that treats us as second-class citizens.
Sarah was a Geography student at St Cuthbert’s Society, Durham University. As a Durham student myself, her case felt incredibly personal and really hit home, especially given my own experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct whilst living in this city and whilst at home.
As 97% of women experience sexual harassment in the UK, and given the increase in anecdotes of this happening in Durham to our students, I along with some other wonderful, formidable women at Durham felt that organising a vigil for Sarah was only right in paying not only our respects, but also resistance to the staggering statistics and culture that pervades women’s bodily autonomy. Sarah’s case is one of many, and rightfully so her case has sparked national outrage. Important work undertaken by organisations such as Sisters Uncut and their initial plans for a vigil in Clapham Common inspired our own event.
Of course, there were difficulties with the organisation of the vigil. Originally intended to be hosted outside Durham Cathedral on Palace Green with the support of Durham constabulary, the Metropolitan Police then intervened and said that such an event was unsafe, due to social distancing measures. We had initially planned to have an online vigil at the same time as the in-person, so moving everything online and cancelling the in-person event was thankfully not too difficult despite the time constraints. Although our vigil would have been socially-distanced with first-aid volunteers and the support of Durham’s police force, the intervention by the Metropolitan Police and the photographs of their response to the vigil in Clapham Common meant that we felt it best to not resist this decision that had been made.
Recommended Reading: Stop Sexual Assault
Around 150 people did turn up at Palace Green during the online vigil anyway, and we’re really grateful that it remained a safe environment with no violence from the officers who were present at the scene.
Our main motivations and aims with the vigil was to commemorate Sarah Everard’s legacy as a Durham student. The online event gave us the opportunity to invite organisations and members of the Durham community to pay their respects to Sarah. We are really grateful that Mary Foy, Member of Parliament for the City of Durham, as well as Professor Elizabeth Archibald, Principal of St Cuthbert’s Society gave up their time to speak at this event. These women are so influential and important in this city and to have them memorialise Sarah with our attendees felt incredibly powerful.
I was given the opportunity to read aloud a poem I’d written recently that was inspired by Sarah’s case, but also my own experiences with sexual misconduct whilst a student at Durham. The inclusion of poetry, spoken-word pieces and speeches was to ensure that this vigil was a space to grieve, to reflect and to remember an innocent woman who was the victim of a violence we all fear.
From now on, in regards to Sarah Everard’s murder and the experiences of women whilst at Durham, us co-organisers hope that this vigil will inspire change at the university. Too often women are not listened to, silenced and victimised. Changes need to be implemented to ensure that this city becomes safer and that there’s more accountability for cases such as Sarah’s, and I will do my best to ensure change in Durham’s culture.
My thoughts are with her family and friends and with all victims of sexual harassment or assault.