Rules won’t save women

Karla, Kirsa, Kirsty, Teresa, Christie, Sophie, Grace. Every woman has the name of another who taught them it’s not safe to be a woman. But what are men being taught?

They were known as the Bega Schoolgirls but I’ll always remember their names. Lauren Margaret Barry and Nichole Emma Collins. They were 14 and 16. I was 12. They were raped and murdered 21 years ago.

I was only four years old when Leigh Rennea Mears was murdered on a beach, but a decade later at school we all talked about “Leigh Leigh”.

In the winter of 2000, I was 14. We knew that girls our age were being raped at train stations around Sydney by packs of men. And we learned to walk carrying sticks we picked up from the bush on our way to the school where a few decades earlier Chris Dawson had taught P.E before his wife went missing, presumed murdered. This week he was arrested.

Sticks wouldn’t have been any protection from us being added to the list of names we knew. I moved to New Zealand and new names found a place in my head and heart – Sophie Elliott was born on the same day as I was. I used to think often of her mum and dad and my mum and dad holding us both at the same moments in two different countries.

I still remember the number of times she was stabbed.

My friends of all ages have names they’ll remember forever too – Karla Cardno, Kirsa Jensen, Mona Blades, Teresa Cormack, Christie Marceau.

They all have one woman who taught them it’s not safe to be a woman. And we don’t just remember the names, the faces, how and where they died. We remember how they were talked about too.

I went to school with Jennifer Hargreaves. She was murdered by the side of the road in 2001, aged 17. I remember staring out of the church window at her funeral and seeing blossoms in the trees and desperately hoping her family would find peace somehow, though it seemed impossible without her.

When I returned to Wellington from Auckland after the funeral, I heard my new classmates talk about her: “Well, she was hitchhiking so that’s why it happened.” We told ourselves, and we were told by all the people in our lives, that there was a list of rules we could live by. If we followed those rules we wouldn’t become a warning to other girls.

Leigh Leigh shouldn’t have been at a party.

Those girls at the train station should have come home sooner, not stayed late – even if it was just to finish studying for their exams.

Jennifer shouldn’t have hitch-hiked.

Sophie had an older boyfriend.

If we followed the rules, we might be OK. Everyone talked about the rules. Don’t go out after dark. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t talk to older boys. But Kirsty Bentley was just walking her dog. It was 3pm.

Still, we were told about the rules. We all knew them. So why did girls just like us keep dying?

Today, a new generation of girls will head to each other’s houses, to end-of-year school catch-ups, with Grace Millane’s name on their lips, they’ll talk about the rules. The rules Grace would have known too, because she surely had her own list of names from her own home country.

Things don’t seem to have changed for these girls. We learned these rules from the adults around us. They taught us, whether they intended to or not, that the men who killed girls just like us were not wholly responsible. They made us believe that even the youngest girls were somehow partly to blame. After all, they didn’t follow the rules.

I wonder as more information comes out about Grace’s death what will young girls around New Zealand learn from adults? What have they already been told? About backpacking? About being out after dark? About talking to men?

And what will our boys and young men learn? What message will we be teaching our sons, grandsons, brothers, nephews – if adults start talking about the rules? The rules that don’t actually protect women anyway?

What reinforcement will we be giving to the men who bash women for talking back, or rape women because they didn’t follow the rules? What will they hear when you talk about the rules?

When people talk about Grace do they teach young men that if a woman is backpacking alone, she’s partly responsible for whatever comes her way? That young women who go to hotel rooms alone, or talk to strangers, are “playing with fire” – all of which I’ve heard over the past couple of days?

Will these young men learn they’re just a match ready to be lit – that their destructive power lies just below the surface, ready to be ignited by women? That they, as men, can’t help but harm?

Many parents will be talking to their daughters about Grace; mothers will be thinking about the names of those who came before her.

But how many parents will talk to their sons?

How many will reject the rules and ensure they raise and know men who aren’t given a checklist of what good women don’t do? That they aren’t given a cheat sheet to view some women as compliant in their own brutalisation?

I’ve heard many people say about Grace’s death that this isn’t New Zealand. But it is. And it is Australia too. It’s every young girl growing up knowing these names, and young boys not knowing these names.

Rules won’t save women. Rejecting the idea that men aren’t entirely responsible for the destruction they enact on women just might save some women. Ensuring the next generation of young men know that there are no rules that exempt them from liability when they attack women would be a start.

If all boys knew the names of these women, knew the ripple effect of heartbreak of all of these young lives lost forever – knew their importance, instead of seeking to highlight perceived recklessness – maybe there might be change.

Young girls know always what they can’t do (not that it matters – they’re killed regardless).

Do young men know what they can’t do? What if they had rules? Like, no means no. Girls and women are not objects for you to use and abuse. You have no right. No right at all to hurt and harm and kill. Would that save lives?

Hope lives only in the idea that new baby girls born today might grow up without the names of other little girls weighing heavily on them in the dark. That they might survive to be adults who can tell their daughters that the rules are bullshit and that the rules don’t apply.

That they might have sons that they teach instead.

Related:

Here’s where to channel the hurt and rage for Grace Millane

You did not need to know Grace Millane to feel overcome by waves of trauma

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