She had no doubt, like most women I know, calculated the risks in her head, weighed up which would be the safest, least isolated, best-lit route. We know she shared that route with friends, spoke to her partner on her phone for around 15 minutes – she took all the care to keep herself safe. Despite that, Sarah was kidnapped and murdered. I cannot bear to think of what she endured.
The phrase we have heard repeatedly is that ‘she was just walking home’ and ‘she did everything right’ (i.e., no high heels, short skirts or alcohol consumed) and she was still murdered. The awful implication is that if you do those things, you carry some of the blame for your death, that you somehow invite the violence in by your very appearance or behaviour. I would say that none of the so-called contributing factors of how you look, dress or behave is the issue; being a woman is the only qualifying factor.
The man arrested and charged with her kidnap and murder, a serving Met Policeman in a ‘position of trust’, was someone we are expected to turn to for help, to keep us safe.
The killing of Sarah is a stark reminder that women are unsafe, both in public spaces and at home. And that we can be at risk from those who should be protecting us. Those risks feature in our daily thoughts and appear each day in our reality, through our TV, media and conversations. Many women are killed in similar circumstances, and it is no wonder that the reaction to Sarah’s death has been so deeply and strongly felt. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) carries on unabated and women’s lives continue to be impacted and restricted. We consciously make our daily calculations around the risks we face, planning routes home, taking the longer routes to avoid dark or isolated spaces where attacks would render us more vulnerable. We unconsciously absorb fear-filled narratives about staying home and keeping safe. Whether it is a real threat or imagined, it impacts our lives in numerous psychological and practical ways.
In a survey of just one (myself) over my lifetime I have experienced my share of unwanted attention, I have been ‘flashed at’, followed, propositioned, shouted at, sexually assaulted in the street, coerced and subject to domestic abuse. I have changed my route mid-journey, gone into shops to ‘escape’, been fearful getting off the bus at my stop (will he follow me off?), found ways to look over my shoulder whilst trying not to draw attention to myself, pretended to be talking on my phone … the list goes on. In a wider survey of my SafeNet team, I find my colleagues recounting similar stories throughout their lives, in fact, I have yet to meet a woman who has not had similar experiences, or used similar tactics to stay safe. This harassment, in the streets or in our homes, is not our problem. We may have to deal with it daily, but we are not the cause of it. And the solutions can only come from the cause. And the feeling of being unsafe in public and private spaces is intensified when the institutions we rely on for safety, fail to keep us safe and instead contribute to that abuse, whether that be the Police, CPS or courts.
Women continue to be raped with little justice. Court outcomes are extremely dismal. Last year (to end March 2020) 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by Police in England and Wales, and of these only 2,102 lead to a prosecution, compared with 3,043 the year before. In the past 5 years, the number of rapes reported to the Police has risen sharply but the proportion making it to court has halved. This is devastating to victims and survivors of rape and all forms of sexual violence and abuse.
Saturday’s vigil for Sarah was not a protest, it was a remembrance vigil. Whether or not it was right to hold the vigil at all is an important discussion, however, that is not the focus of this blog, and whilst I cannot support the breaking of Covid safety measures, I totally understand why it happened. The events that unfolded at Clapham Common are shameful and unnecessary. Local women, seeking to come together to mourn the murder of Sarah Everard, had their plans for a safe, socially distanced remembrance vigil denied. Organisers from Reclaim the Streets repeatedly tried to find ways forward for the event, including staggering start times and splitting the event into time slots but found Met Police ‘unwilling to commit to anything’ as they seemingly failed to read the strength of feeling locally and nationally around the killing of Sarah, and the feelings of being unsafe triggered by these horrific events.
As predicted, women came together regardless of whether they had permission to do so, and we have all seen what happened next. Shocking, counter-productive actions and unnecessarily aggressive scenes that went way beyond respectful policing and are in sharp contrast to other recent events where large football crowds and Covid/freedom protests were ‘passively’ policed.
At SafeNet, we work successfully with our local Police every day in Lancashire and Greater Manchester to keep women and children safe from further domestic abuse and violence. The Police are key partners in many successful domestic abuse interventions and central to a host of multi-agency initiatives that are a vital part of the solution to domestic abuse. Together, we genuinely work hard to improve safety and outcomes for victims and survivors. Which is why this week’s events, contrasting sharply with our day-to-day working relationships, are damaging and disturbing on many levels and worst of all, they erode trust which is hard-won, easily lost and difficult to regain.
Whilst we are all devastated by the murder of Sarah, we are not surprised by it. Women are murdered every week across the UK. Whilst many murders slip by without much uproar, some are more well known. Locally, in August 2019, a 17yr old man in Accrington randomly murdered Lindsay Birbeck, a 47yr old teaching assistant and Mum of 2. He dragged her body through the town in a wheelie bin, before attempting to burying her in a shallow grave in the local graveyard. Last year in Oct 2020, a mother and her 14-year-old daughter, Dr Saman Mir Sacharvi and Vian Magrio, were brutally attacked and killed in Burnley. They were found strangled, assaulted, and badly burned. A local man has been charged with double murder and the case is currently on-going.
Last year, June 2020, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were stabbed to death in a London park by a stranger. These two young black women had been at a friend’s birthday celebration. The response of the Police to reports of the missing sisters was highly criticised, and it emerged that Met PCs had taken selfies next to the dead sister’s bodies, which they posted to colleagues on social media. Nothing intensifies women’s feelings of being unsafe in society more than abusive actions of this kind by servicing policemen.
We know that on average 2 women each week are killed because of domestic violence and abuse. Violence against women and girls is endemic in the UK and much more needs to be done to create safe public and private spaces so that our daughters need never be afraid of the dark.
Yesterday the Government responded to demands for action to tackle violence against women by announcing ‘immediate steps’, namely investment of £25 million in more CCTV coverage, street lighting and plain clothes Police in pubs and clubs to ‘spot predatory men’. In doing so they demonstrated that they are completely missing the point. The problem is misogyny, not street lighting.
The government’s approach supports and promotes the idea that women should not go into dangerous places, rather than saying that men should be changing their dangerous behaviours. The emphasis is once again on women being ‘kept safe’ rather than tackling the issues at its very root i.e. by educating men not to attack women. Taking away the opportunity in some streets to attack, will not stop the attacks from happening, it will only move location, drive it more deeply underground and perhaps further into homes. You cannot put CCTV into every home. The government have missed the opportunity again by taking action without listening to the women who are affected, an ill-thought-out reaction with no consultation, which will make little if any progress into the real issue of stopping male violence towards women.
Anyone reading the placards and handwritten signs at the vigil on Saturday would see that not one of them was asking for CCTV and extra lighting, no signs asking for extra or undercover Police or equipment. What women said has not been heard.
This is what was said:
- I don’t want a rape whistle, I want change
- When will women be safe?
- We live in fear, not all survive, police do protect us
- It could have been any of us
- Unsafe is my default existence
- We are all Sarah
- Killed by the system we’re told protects us
- Educate your sons
- When will women be safe?
- Text me when your home
- I need to be able to tell my children I did not stay silent
- Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them
- Stop killing us
We do not need investment in equipment, it will not stop systemic violence against women and nor will legislation for longer prison sentences. What the government are proposing will not stop violence against women and girls.
We need to invest in preventative work to change people’s future behaviours. We need more funding for VAWG services so that we can address core beliefs about gender roles and educate men and boys. Investing in education to help change the set of beliefs that say it’s ok to abuse women and use violence against them, to kill them in the street. And we need to improve the justice system, because if you do not have an effective criminal justice system, or the CPS declines to prosecute, or it takes years to get to court, having an undercover policeman in the pub does not help.
Helen Gauder & the SafeNet Team