Activist and advocate for women’s safety #S04
Whilst we were reading on a relatively new topic ‘cyber-flashing’, which has definitely been on the rise the past few years because of the technological advancements and smartphone use frequency, we came across Karen Whybro, a feminist activist and equality campaigner based in Essex, raising awareness on the subject matter (which will be discussed later on). Karen’s campaigning however did not begin there. Karen has been campaigning in Essex and the rest of the UK for urgent and radical response to the rising rates of violence against women and children. She currently works alongside Chelmsford Council, Chelmsford BID & University of Essex to raise awareness, lobby for investment and action for women’s rights and bring radical change to safety in Essex. She also worked as a primary teacher, and is the founder of a modern wedding-dress boutique with stores in Brighton, Essex and Cheshire.
The femicide of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, in London, have sparked a UK conversation on male violence, on the exhausting onus put on women to stay safe, whilst they have opened Pandora’s box on the interrogation of the institutions (e.g., Metropolitan Police) which are supposed to protect women and not policing victim behaviour.
We are very grateful that Karen agreed to have a talk with us about her work. So, Karen lets dive right into it!
What triggered your involvement in activism and campaigning for women’s rights?
Like many people, I was hugely shocked and saddened at the horrific murder of Sarah Everard and felt compelled to do something in her honour. We had planned a local vigil here in my hometown to avoid travelling during COVID restrictions but this was shut down by the police 24 hours before it should have gone ahead. I would say that the huge global outrage at Sarah’s murder by a police officer but also the continued behaviour of the MET police and UK government following the event really lit the touch-paper for my campaigning. Women have been saying for decades now that enough is enough and I felt it was the right time to add my voice to the already amazing work being carried out by many organisations in the UK.
How important is activism for gender related crime in the UK and do you think it is of critical importance in shaping the law?
You mentioned to us that you work locally with the University of Essex and that a paper will be published this year (in which you were part of) regarding women changing their behaviour based on their perception of safety. Could you share with our readers more about this and on what this paper will be about?
Right at the beginning of my campaigning, I felt it was important to hear from women locally about how they felt just going about their everyday business here in Chelmsford. I was shocked that the results showed that especially young women felt very unsafe, particularly at night, and the huge disparity that existed between how safe men felt compared to women. My wonderful contact at the University of Essex got in touch to see if I would like my survey to be used as part of a research project into how women change their behaviour based on how safe they feel, and the survey was relaunched to include the whole of Essex. The paper isn’t yet published but we already expect it to be used by local authorities to shape more research and policy here around how safe women feel.
I feel it worth noting here, too, that how safe we FEEL versus how safe we actually are is worth considering. The perception of safety in society isn’t always around potential threats but more often about a lack of community and connection. This is why I focus a lot of my campaigning on how we can improve the experience of women through a focus on relationships and the promotion of women in all walks of life.
One of the biggest concerns to me is the continued victim-blaming I witness on a daily basis. Gender bias sadly still underpins a lot of views here in the U.K. and the response from men can quite often be very defensive and very dismissive. Too many men will not acknowledge that violence is a male issue or that they are responsible for improving attitudes they see around them. Throughout media here, we see persistent headlines which either remove the perpetrator completely from a story or lay the blame on the women. One of my biggest challenges is getting people to understand and recognise that we must shift the focus from what victim’s roles are in a crime to a bottom-line cultural rejection of misogyny and its associated behaviour.
The short answer is no. Sadly, as horrific and tragic as the murder of Sarah Everard was, the case certainly gained more media attention because of her whiteness. Despite living very close to the mother of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, their story wasn’t even told in local press here. It was a comparable type of murder yet the outrage just didn’t occur as it did with Sarah. Now, coming up to the anniversary of Sarah’s murder, I am receiving endless media requests for interviews and I would say that we need to look at how we report on femicide here in the U.K. Sarah wasn’t the first and she certainly isn’t the last. We need to honor all women or we will never be able to improve safety for us all.
What is your response to those who, in discussions of gender-based violence, bring up that 79% of homicide victims worldwide are men?
Are there other activism projects of yours that you’d like to reflect upon?
As briefly mentioned above, on 7/2/2022 we read a UK article stating that Cyber-Flashing will be criminalized in England and Wales, as it is set to be included in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (and not as part of the Online Safety Bill). Whilst reading more on the subject, we came across your real-life experience and decision to support /team up with Bumble’s campaign on cyber-flashing (check Karen’s interview on ‘this morning’ here)*.
Have you faced challenges over the years in being active around women’s rights? Do any stand-out for you?
Many! My biggest challenge is getting many people to believe that women even have anything to still fight for! It still astounds me that so many (including women) believe that women have achieved equality and that we are somehow too privileged to be continuing this fight. Sadly, many people fail to recognize that although we may have legal rights, they don’t necessarily equate into cultural changes which truly improve the experiences of women in all ways of life.
*Bumble’s campaign, which started in November 2021, was about raising awareness about the prevalence of cyber-flashing, campaigning to criminalize this abhorrent behavior.