Alex Hems, Head's Blog 26 March
In the last few weeks we will all have been horrified and deeply saddened to hear of the violent death of Sarah Everard. Over recent years the MeToo movement has brought to the surface stories of sexual harassment and assault experienced by women of all ages, many in very prominent positions, and more recently the website Everyone’s Invited has shed a disturbing light on the experiences of many girls and young women during their teenage years. These are matters that I think it is essential that we discuss with our older girls, in an age appropriate way of course, and I took the opportunity of my Upper School assembly this week to start this conversation.
First of all, the death of Sarah Everard, a violent and frightening event, which encapsulates so many of our worst fears as women -abduction and murder at the hands of a total stranger. Any death by violence is one too many, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of Sarah Everard who I know will mourn her loss for as long as they live. I know that a great many women and girls will have been very frightened by what this represents, so I wanted to give the girls some context in which to understand this horrible event. Statistically women are far less likely to be murdered than men are. Men are also much more likely to die at the hands of a stranger, but sadly, women are far more likely to suffer violence or be killed by a partner or former partner. Violence against women is a real and serious issue, but the vast majority of it is not carried out by complete strangers. I do not want to encourage anyone to take unnecessary risks, but nor would I want our girls to be haunted by fear either. I want them to be sensible, but not to let the actions of a tiny minority take the joy out of living for them.
What is far too common, however, is the sort of incident that I suspect almost all of us as women have experienced – the stares and comments that make us feel deeply uncomfortable as we walk down the road; unwanted physical contact that is dismissed as accidental, or just a bit of fun; suggestive remarks, and worst of all, pressure to do things that we are not happy about. I am aware that incidents of this kind may have happened to many of our girls already. I have not asked my colleagues, but I know that they have happened to me and to all of my female friends at one time or another in our lives. They are demeaning, undermining and damaging because they limit the way we live our lives, they change the way that we feel about ourselves and overall normalise a view of women and girls that simply has no place in our society. Sadly, however, these are experiences that young women are far more likely to encounter as they grow up.
Clearly change is long overdue in this area. We need stronger and clearer legislation and more supportive responses from the police when crimes against women are reported. These are not experiences that I want any of our students to have, but I know that realistically change will not come overnight. So I have given a very clear message to the Upper School girls. First of all, if any of them suffer in the future, or have already had a bad experience that they want to talk about, we are here to listen to them and support them in a non-judgemental way. I want them to feel that they can always talk to anyone at school if they need help. Secondly, while I don’t personally think that it is appropriate or productive to label all men as perpetrators of this sort of behaviour, I do think that all the men in our lives can and should be allies and advocates for respect and dignity in the treatment of women and girls. I think that all of us, men and women, should speak out when we see or hear behaviour that is wrong and damaging. Change will only come when fathers consistently role-model this positive behaviour for their sons, and when there are open conversations in society and within families about attitudes and expectations. Collectively we do have the capacity to bring about change when we speak up about the things that matter to us, and maintain high expectations of those around us. Those of us in positions of leadership must also take responsibility for creating a culture in which sexual harassment will never be accepted at work.
In this context it is useful to refer to the theme for International Women’s Day this year – ‘choose to challenge.’ A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.
So let's all choose to challenge, so that in future there is less for our daughters to fear in this world.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh