London holds vigil for Zara Aleena, another woman slain while walking

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Floral tributes, candles and cards are left at the scene where Zara Aleena was murdered in Ilford, England, on Wednesday.

LONDON – Britain is becoming uncomfortably accustomed to holding vigils in memory of young women slain while walking in the street.

On Saturday, relatives, friends and neighbors of Zara Aleena, 35, gathered in the spot where she was killed in Ilford, east London, to finish the walk home she never managed. Aleena was attacked early Sunday morning, just 10 minutes from her home, and died later that day in the hospital.

Her family planned a silent vigil and walk in her memory to highlight what they say is an epidemic of violence against young women in the capital. Hundreds are expected at the event, with attendees asked to wear white to show solidarity and raise awareness of the issue around women’s safety. Similar vigils will also be taking place in a handful of other cities across Britain.

Earlier this week, Jordan McSweeney, 29, was charged with the murder, attempted rape and robbery of Aleena, London’s Metropolitan police said in a statement. He will now face trial.

Aleena’s family say she was “murdered by a stranger” and cited the cases of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and several other young women killed in the capital in the last couple of years.

Everard, 33, made global headlines last year when she was kidnapped in South London and later murdered by London police officer Wayne Couzens, prompting an outcry and vigils attended by lawmakers and royal family members.

Months later, the murder of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher who was killed by a man as she walked to meet a friend, further shocked the country and stoked a national debate on gender-based violence.

“I wish today’s vigil didn’t have to happen,” Anna Birley, founder of the British advocacy group Reclaim These Streets, wrote in an op-ed published in the Guardian on Saturday.

“When we organised the vigil for Sarah Everard, it felt like a turning point. The prime minister lit a candle for her on the doorstep of No 10, and politicians from all parties were saying ‘never again’ . . . but over a year later, any change has been cosmetic,” she added.

“It isn’t a matter of dark corners but the attitudes and behaviour of some of the men who occupy them.”

Aleena’s family said she had been a caregiver for her mother and grandmother, and was on her way to becoming a qualified lawyer. She also worked to support refugees, they said.

“She was a joy to all of us, her sparkling eyes and the curly, jet-black hair. Her glorious laughter and her sweet, smiling voice. Her tiny frame embodied a passionate spirit and indomitable energy,” her aunt Farah Naz said in a statement on behalf of the family.

“She was authentic and refused to try and impress anyone but she impressed us.”

Most strikingly, her aunt said, Aleena “walked everywhere.”

“She put her party shoes in a bag and donned her trainers. She walked. Zara believed that a woman should be able to walk home. Now, her dreams of a family are shattered, her future brutally taken.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan called Aleena an “extraordinary woman” and tweeted: “We must end the scourge of male violence that is taking women’s lives. I’m utterly determined to make our city the safest it can possibly be for everyone.”

Britain’s End Violence Against Women coalition group is one of dozens of women’s charities and advocacy groups joining Saturday’s march. “Let’s unite to honour her life and walk her home,” the group tweeted.

Across social media, many women were also sharing photos of their shoes alongside the hashtag #SafelyHomeInOurShoes in a display of solidarity with Aleena and to highlight their own fears and stories.

Last year, a British watchdog called violence against women “an epidemic” and said authorities should treat the issue with as much urgency as fighting terrorism. On average, a woman is killed by a man in Britain every three days, it found.

A new wave of alarm has also pulsed though the young female population this year, after a growing number of reports of “needle spiking” – which involves an injection being administered to someone without their knowledge or consent, usually in a nightclub or bar setting.

Although the overall number of reported needle-spiking incidents remains far below the number of drink-spiking incidents, police chiefs in Britain have been asked to urgently assess how widespread the attacks are, as cases also rise in mainland Europe.