Women Should be Safe Going for a Walk, But This Week We Learned Again We’re Not

Guest writer Rachael Russell reflects on an awful week in her neighbourhood and asks, when are we going to be safe?

I always thought my running partner was a wee bit paranoid on our early morning runs.

We were on Mt Albert Road after all; very well lit, cars going past on their commute, and other regular runners and dog walkers to give a friendly nod to. But my friend was always on the alert to anything suspicious, and one day that alert turned into an actual fright. A white car, driven by a man with his hood up obscuring his face, passed us slowly. Then he did a U-turn and passed us slowly again. We sped up and I thought no more of it.

But 10 minutes later, that car pulled up and started crawling along beside us. We bolted across the road and to the petrol station, unfortunately too quickly to grab the plate number, and called for a ride home. I didn’t feel we were in huge danger – two of us, one of him – but he was no doubt getting a thrill from this act of intimidation. I posted a warning on the community FB page and we reported it to the police. We continue to run in the area, but I was now as alert to the potential dangers as my running partner.

This has of course all come back to me as I read the reports of the alleged sexual violation and murder of Lena Zhang Harrap. That smile, that innocence, that independent life in defiance of being vision impaired and Down syndrome.  She was a beautiful soul out for her early morning walk in our neighbourhood and then…I can’t bear to think about what her final moments must have been like.

When I first read that she was missing, I feared, as I’m sure many of us did, that she’d had an accident. People in Mt Albert who knew Lena from her regular walks went searching for her. It’s natural to look out for the vulnerable – that’s what communities are for.

I didn’t want to think we had people in this world who would end Lena’s life this way. But we do.

The 31-year-old man who has allegedly committed this brutal act was found in a white car. It’s unlikely to be the same guy who intimidated us – there are a lot of white cars in the world – but I messaged my running mate: “White car”. She replied: “I feel sick and sad.”

Owairaka/Mt Albert is a beautiful maunga, with steep paths that get your heart rate up, wide fields for kicking a ball around, and, of course, amazing views over our stunning city. And now it’s a reminder on my morning run that that, yes, I do have to be paranoid. I have to cross the road, clutch the keys, be alert to who’s behind me. I have to do these things because woman are vulnerable, and even the nicest neighbourhood can witness a tragedy.

Women should be safe going for a walk, especially vulnerable women. But this week, once again, we learnt we’re not.

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