When I heard the news that a 32-year-old woman was murdered and left naked in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens in late June, I felt physically ill.
Renea Lau was on her way to work along Melbourne’s St Kilda Road, a reasonably well-lit, busy boulevard lined with apartment buildings and office blocks.
Even though Melbourne in mid-winter is grey and dark, trams trundle along this stretch from around 5am, with steady traffic and the occasional jogger.
Yet none of the passers-by or the CCTV cameras along the street were able to prevent what happened.
Lau, helpless and alone, was chased by her killer. Police allege Scott Allen Miller seized her, sexually assaulted her and murdered her, leaving her naked body in the Botanic Gardens.
There are a number of things that haunt me about Lau’s case.
Firstly, the fact that someone’s life was taken and so violently. There is the fact that her case was glossed over and quickly forgotten in the onslaught of daily news – and that her name is not remembered.
And there is the warning to all women implicit in the crime – you are not safe on our streets.
As a woman who starts work at 6am and frequently finds herself alone in the city before sunrise, this tragic death and others like it are particularly horrifying.
My growing sense of unease began two years ago when Jill Meagher’s story exploded onto newspaper front pages. Three nights before she was reported missing, I had walked home alone at 2am. The realisation that it could easily have been me changed my perception of safety forever.
Today, I’m cautious to the point of paranoid.
On my way to work in the morning, I carry hot tea to throw in the face of any potential attacker, hold my keys to use as a weapon, walk in the middle of the road to avoid shadowy alleyways and side streets and I am looking into taking martial arts lessons.
Frankly, I’m sick of worrying how short my skirt is, how far from home I am or how many people are on my train.
When I downloaded an app that tracks my movements and allows me to ask friends to be my “guardians” and digitally follow me home, many of my loved ones teased me and said I’d taken it too far.
“I don’t want to know your every move!” a close friend joked. Unfortunately, I told her, the app was worth more to my peace of mind than any social awkwardness it may incur.
I’d love to embrace girl power and make decisions based on what I want and not what I fear. But realistically, I’m a 22-year-old woman with zero muscle strength and no combat experience – I wouldn’t stand a chance against the average male.
Too many of my female friends have been followed off trams, chased home by cars at night, propositioned by strange men and even sexually assaulted for me to feel differently.
Do I resent this? The fact that my freedom to walk around my city is curtailed by safety concerns? The fact that I can’t be alone in public without humming with anxiety?
Of course I do. While my male friends often nonchalantly wander home from the pub without a second thought, my nights out are planned with military precision, often involving carpooling, expensive taxis and the consuming fear of having low battery on my phone.
In May, a hooded attacker began assaulting women on their morning jog in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Police advised women to avoid headphones and get their exercise later in the day. While I recognised their practicality as necessary, the injustice of it all made me furious.
An op-ed for Buzzfeed outlined my sentiments perfectly: “It’s worth thinking about how much you alter your life — whether it’s by taking a different route home, going home early, changing the way you dress or walk or wear your hair — in order to feel safe. These are things that men often don’t have to think about … and they’re things that take up a shocking amount of time, strength, and emotional bandwidth to negotiate.”
Frankly, I’m sick of worrying how short my skirt is, how far from home I am or how many people are on my train. I don’t want to shy away from small talk with strangers, drinking alcohol or wearing high heels. I want to listen to my iPod without concern.
Put simply, I just don’t want to feel scared of men anymore. But until violence against women becomes history, I’d be flat-out stupid to think any differently.