Helen Mead

Women across the UK have gathered in tribute to Sarah Everard and to campaign for safer streets

OPINION: Why I felt the need to carry a toy gun
BACK in the 1990s, I was covering a story on toy guns that looked like genuine firearms and was sent to various shops to buy some examples. One of them, in particular, looked very much like a real weapon, especially in the dark.  A few weeks later, my husband came across it in the glove box of my car. “What’s this doing here?” He asked. I told him I had put it there as it made me feel safer when I was on night duty. Night duty began at 2pm, and often I would not finish until after 11 or even midnight. Other than a late duty photographer popping in and out, there was no-one else in the office and after 9pm, you were alone. Going out on jobs across Bradford and beyond, I often felt nervous. A feeling of tension would creep in and remain until I was back in the office.  This wasn’t unfounded. On numerous occasions I experienced male drivers revving their cars up close behind mine, blaring their horns and shouting across as they pulled alongside, and once - in an incident that left me shaking - a group of men sat on the bonnet of my car as I approached on foot, only moving off when I got in and started the ignition.  When I had finished the night shift, the tension crept back - I had to get to my car. The car park was a five-minute walk away, in an area which wasn't close to any buildings. In common with other women, I hated going there after dark, on my own, and we would often accompany each other. It wasn't much better when the parking moved to a city centre multi-storey, with its low ceilings, concrete columns and dim corners. The women I worked with tried to secure spaces on the bottom storeys, closer to the relative safety of the street, but, often, it was full and we had to park further up. We would worry, and keep popping back to find spaces lower down, where - if you were attacked - your screams might be heard. If the men felt the same, I never heard them say so. This was why I kept the toy gun.“You can’t keep that - if you ever used it you could go to prison,” my husband quite rightly said. Of course I was aware of that, but the fear I felt had overridden my common sense.  From then on, my husband often came by train to meet me after work. For as long I can remember, women have had to be vigilant when out on a night. Less so during the day, but still alert. A rape alarm was among the first things I was given in a welcome pack all those years ago, at university freshers’ week. My daughters live in London, one not far from the spot where Sarah Everard disappeared.  For as long as I can remember, most of the conversations and messages I have sent them have ended with the words ‘take care.’ Their safety has always been in the back of my mind. Since Sarah disappeared my calls took on more urgency, and I added a string of instructions, 'don’t go near vehicles', 'don’t talk to strangers'. Subsequent developments have been horrific, upsetting and unsettling, and my heart goes out to the family of Sarah. I can only imagine their pain and suffering. It’s not only in urban areas where women feel the need to be alert. Walking along the river near my home, I feel nervous seeing an unknown, lone man approaching. This shouldn’t be the case - the vast majority of men are not murderers or rapists - but it is.  For women everywhere, looking over your shoulder is the norm.  I’d like to envisage a time when this will change, and I would like to think that protests and campaigns for safer streets will make a difference, but sadly I don't think they will.