I’m 11 years old and it’s the weekend before I start secondary school. Mum has brought me into town with the promise of a new pencil case and as much stationery as I can fit in it. We leave the car park and stop off in a convenience store en route to the high street. I’m wearing a denim skirt, a white tshirt and a Britney Spears tote bag. Mum peruses the magazines and I wander down the next aisle in search of snacks. I feel a man watching me, and I focus on picking a chocolate bar. Mum and dad have always said to ignore strangers so that’s what I’ll do, I think to myself. I pick up a Caramac. I feel someone stood nearby. I look up. It’s the man. He’s stood close behind me and his hands are brushing up and down my arms. He asks if I’d like to come for a walk. My mum appears around the corner, rushes forwards and yanks me out of the shop by the hand. I note that she forgot to buy a magazine. I don’t understand what just happened but I can see mum is upset. I hope I haven’t done anything wrong.
I’m 23 years old and it’s my Christmas party. Everyone is drunk, but I don’t fancy it and have stopped at a couple of glasses of fizz. My male colleague, who I consider a friend, keeps trying to make me drink. No thanks, I insist, I’m not in the mood. He gets more and more drunk, and comments on how my breasts look in my dress. I freeze. The whole table laughs. ‘Oh him, he’s so drunk!’ they say. I feel uncomfortable, but laugh along too so it isn’t awkward. Later, when the party has progressed from sitting around tables to hovering, he comes over and tells me how out of all of the girls in the office, he’d like to sleep with me most. He thinks I would be an animal in bed, and would happily leave the party early to take me home to have a threesome with his wife. We don’t have to tell anyone else either, he promises. My heart is hammering. I get up to leave, and he puts a hand on my thigh. Another male colleague comes over to diffuse the situation, and we all laugh about it. I leave the party without saying bye to anyone, staring at every male passerby with unease en route to the train station. I cry with relief when my partner meets me at the other end. I’m home before 8pm.
To the mum who brought up her two daughters alone from ages 15 and 11, to the sister who has overcome troubled relationships and made a career for herself when everyone doubted her. To the friend who held me through heartbreak, even though she said he was an idiot for years, and the housemate who bought me pizza and happily talked about the same problems, over and over again. To the friend who has come to terms with her rape and is fiercely fighting for equality, to the pal who has to be a mum to her mum.
To the colleagues who put a smile on my face when I want to cry in the toilets, to the buddy who posts me a card just to remind me it’s going to be okay. To the lecturer who taught me how to be assertive yet kind, professional yet approachable, and to the podcast duo who embrace vulnerability, ooze intellect and encapsulate the inner workings of my mind all in a one-hour weekly recording. To the friend who got the promotion when everyone told her she wouldn’t, to the three girls who told me they liked my jacket all in one day. To the mother-in-law who puts everyone before herself, and to the best friend who would pick up the phone at 3am if I called. Thank you.
These women are the women who made me who I am today, and I am so proud and happy to know them. Here’s to women deciding who touches their body, and calling out unacceptable behaviour without fear or hesitation. Here’s to championing equality, celebrating talent regardless of gender, and supporting each other no matter what.
Happy International Women’s Day, my heroes xxx