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Mia: “It’s no longer possible to find reasons why any of these women couldn’t be us."

We gather reasons why this couldn’t happen to us around us like a comforter – until there are no more.

There are some murders so chilling, so random, so devastating, that they come to define a generation.

The scars they leave on the psyche of those who remember them are indelible. For anyone over 40, Anita Cobby, Janine Balding, Sian Kingi and Samantha Knight are names we will never forget.  Their stories are the stuff of our nightmares. During the 80s, all four were randomly abducted, raped and murdered in unrelated crimes. As a nation, we reeled.

Anita Cobby (left) and Janine Balding (right).

Both Anita and Janine were young women in their 20s who were happily on their way home from work when they disappeared. They were each abducted by groups of men – and in the case of Janine a woman was also involved – who inflicted unimaginable torture, terror, indignity and finally death upon them. Samantha Knight was walking to the shops near her Bondi home one afternoon after school. She was snatched by a paedophile who sexually abused and murdered her. Her body has never been found. She was nine years old. Sian Kingi was lured to a brutal assault and murder by a man and a woman who asked her to help them look for their lost dog. She was 12.

For those of us who remember those crimes, the faces of Anita, Janine, Sian and Samantha appear instantly in our minds at the mention of their names. We vividly recall the missing posters, the media coverage of the crimes and then the trials of the murderers. Their deaths resonated in the same deeply affecting way that Jill Meagher’s brutal murder did in 2013.

Sian Kingi (left) and Samantha Knight (right).

Thousands of people are killed every year in Australia but only a handful penetrates the psyche of an entire country as resoundingly as these women have.

The members of this bleak club have three things in common: youth, randomness and relatability. These women looked like us, lived like us, could have been us. They were all just beginning their lives. They were all unlucky. The men who killed them were violent opportunists. There but for the grace of God went all of us.

Jill Meager missing poster in 2013.

One of my closest friends is 29. She and I agree on almost everything of consequence. Our ideals, our values, our worldview and our feminism are all closely aligned. But on the subject of women and safety, women and crime, women and danger, we strongly disagree.

Read more: Tom Meagher responds to the priest who blamed Jill Meagre for her own murder.

You can hear the depth of our disagreement in an episode of the Mamamia Outloud podcast we recorded a few days after murdered teenager Masa Vukotic’s funeral. Listen to it here.

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While I heatedly defended the chief of the Melbourne homicide squad who had warned that, regrettably, “women aren’t safe alone in public parks”, Jamila Rizvi insisted she understood the anger and controversy that had flared among some women around his statement. She maintained that although she sympathised with the man himself and agreed that his intentions were good, she was nevertheless furious that every time a woman is brutally murdered by a stranger, discussion immediately turns to the behaviour of the victim instead of the killer; what could she have done differently?

Masa Vukotic.

It’s easy to confuse this with victim blaming and many do. But I don’t believe such discussion stems from a desire to blame anyone, least of all the victim of a violent crime.

I think it’s a natural instinct to try and distance ourselves from a horrific story by nervously checking off reasons why it could never have happened to us. We would never stay in a violent relationship, we tell ourselves. We would never walk home alone at night in a bad area. We aren’t all refugees or indigenous women or hitchhikers or backpackers or sex workers. These women were not us. They will not be us. Cannot be us.

We will go to great lengths searching for the smallest details to distance and differentiate ourselves from the tangible ‘other’, in the desperate, naïve hope that this differentiation – no matter how minor – might keep us safe.

Masa Vukotic’s memorial.

We don’t just do this with violent crime; it’s the same when you hear other kinds of bad news about someone in your world. Women particularly, despite being genuine in their empathy, will ask questions laced with quiet urgency. ‘Was there a history of it in the family? Did she have regular mammograms? Were their signs before he killed himself? Was the driver drunk?’

Read more: We can finally reveal the details of Jill Meagher’s killer’s violent past.

It’s a desperate grasp for talisman to guard against misfortune; to gather facts that we can use to reassure ourselves that it could not, will not happen to us. It’s also a quick grab for knowledge in the hope that we can somehow use it to protect our future selves.

Was she looking at her phone when she was attacked? OK, that’s a concrete step I can take to decrease my risk. Did she have earbuds in? OK, I won’t do that any more. Was she walking alone in a park at night? Right, I’ll change my route. 

We collect these details out of fear. Out of desperation. Not in order to blame the victim but to learn from her.

The alternative – the truth – that it doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, if you encounter someone who wishes to harm you then you too could become a victim – is just too terrifying. Too random. Too overwhelming.

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It speaks to our powerlessness in the face of the monsters who walk among us. It speaks to our innate vulnerability as women. It speaks to our utter lack of control of our own lives and our own safety. Our ability to walk around in the world every day and night without being raped or murdered.

So we hold onto these details. We collect them like sticks and use them to build a fire so we can keep the wild animals at bay. Except we can’t.

Because Jill Meagher was walking home along a busy suburban road. Masa Vukovic was walking in a public park at 7pm. Prabha Kumar was walking home from Parramatta train station at 9pm. And Stephanie Scott was in the classroom where she taught at 11am on a Sunday morning.

It’s no longer possible to find reasons why any of these women couldn’t be us. They could all be us. They are all us. And we are terrified.

Prabha Kumar was on the phone to her husband when she was stabbed.

This week, Stephanie Scott takes her tragic place among the group of women whose lives  – the end of whose lives – will impact upon a generation. It was so random. She was so relatable. We are in shock.

“It feels like we’re under siege,” I said to my mother in one of the thousands of similar anguished conversations taking place among women around Australia these past weeks.

Read more: Small town make an unforgettable tribute to Stephanie Scott.

My mother nodded, absently, lost in a horrific mental scroll of Anita and Janine and Samantha and Jill and the other women who deserved so much more than the fame that comes with tragedy.

“But hasn’t it always been like this?”  She replied with a mix of despair and fury.“Have we ever really been safe?”

And in that moment I understood something; something about the fissure that can open when discussing the extraordinary recent spike in random murders of innocent women. Women who could have been our sisters, our mothers, our friends, our daughters, ourselves.

Stephanie Scott.

There’s a generation of women, women younger than me, younger than 40, who have an unshakable expectation of safety. They believe – with absolute conviction –that is their right to be safe from attack no matter the circumstances. No matter where they are or what state they’re in.

When this expectation is challenged, they become defiant, angry.

Read more: 5 things we should never say to our girls.

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And of course they are absolutely correct. Personal and physical safety is a basic human right.

The truth is though, many women of my generation and older don’t feel the same way. While we know it’s our right to be safe, it is not necessarily our expectation.

As a generation we are more fearful.

Whether as a result of my upbringing by a mother who was incredibly cautious about the physical safety of women and girls or the legacy of Anita Cobby and Janine Balding and Samantha Knight, I have never expected to be safe. Not in my home, not in my car, not in the street, not in a cab, not in a public toilet, not in a car park, not in a nightclub, not on a train, not in a park, not in a lift. I have always lived with the knowledge that if I am ever alone with a man, the only thing keeping me safe is the choice that man makes not to harm me.

Samantha Knight missing poster.

Just like I can never remember having sex in a world without AIDS, I can never recall having a sense of complete safety in the world. I know it’s my right, but it’s not my expectation.

Interestingly though, I don’t see this attitude reflected in the younger women around me. They demand their right to be safe, insist upon it, and refuse to negotiate it or to amend their behaviour in order to guarantee it. I don’t know if that is something to be celebrated or castigated but it does explain the way I sometimes clash with my younger friends on this subject.

When the head of the homicide squad says women aren’t safe alone in parks, I compliantly nod because he has merely confirmed what I already know to be true.

Many younger women are appalled by such comments and by my compliance. How dare he suggest we curtail our activities, they say.  We’re not the ones raping and murdering people. How about the men stop raping and murdering, huh? Why the hell aren’t we talking about that?

I understand their anger. Their expectations are much higher than mine and that’s probably a good thing. But I also believe one conversation doesn’t cancel out another. I have to believe that because we must have multiple simultaneous conversations about why men are choosing to rape and murder women with such distressing frequency. It’s an epidemic. A plague. A siege. An indictment of our society and our culture and a sign that something is very wrong with our basic humanity. Something must change and it’s not the behaviour of women.

So, go well Stephanie Scott. We mourn your loss and remember it. Like Anita and Janine and Samantha and Jill and Masa and Prabha, you have taken a little bit of all of us with you.