By Kerry Dungay, Chair UHP Women’s Network
The murder of Sarah has shaken the nation to its core and the debate around violence against women has re-surfaced – this can only be a good thing. However, what I have seen on social media is a complex and nuanced subject turned into something that has, at times, divided the genders.
It’s tricky in the present political climate to talk about potentially divisive subjects – particularly when it’s talking out against a particular group of society. When we talked about ‘black lives matter’, there were calls for all lives to matter and now, the response is ‘not all men’. For me, this often negates the original points being made; in this case, it is that violence against women is a thing – but also, that we should be able to discuss it and its impact. I understand it’s not all men, all men understand it’s not all men. The intent is not to point the finger at our male colleagues, friends and family but to highlight that a large percentage of women have faced harassment, sexual assault, violence, abuse and are not believed or the fact that perpetrators are going unpunished. What follows are some grim statistics, a look at the responses from the police at the vigil held for Sarah Everard, and then a look at what can be done to help facilitate the conversations going forward.
Why did women across the country react so viscerally to this news?
When the issues of gender based violence is raised, Director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, Myrna Dawson, highlights that violence against women is “unique, and entrenched in our society, where…social structures ‘perpetuate and maintain gender inequalities’” (2020). In other words, violence towards women is the cause and consequence of social inequalities. If we, as a society, want to address this, then we need to recognise these differences in order to create meaningful preventative measures (World Health Organisation, 2009).
Domestic violence is still highly gendered – 91% of domestic violence crimes that cause injuries are against women, and three women every fortnight are being killed by a current or former partner in the UK (Nazeer, 2021). COVID has further frustrated the situation, with 91% feeling that it has worsened their current situation due to feeling isolated and afraid (Women’s Aid, 2020). A staggering 10 women and two children were killed by men in the first lockdown – three times higher than normal two weekly averages pre-COVID (Women’s Aid, 2020).
Sexual violence is still highly gendered – with 20% of women compared with 4% of men reporting sexual assault since turning 16 (Rape Crisis, 2017).
What is more disturbing is the rhetoric around violence towards women – and whether they are believed when they come forward. For example, a common myth, perpetuated by media is that women often lie about rape – when the truth is that for this very reason and the trauma of the processes, many don’t ever even end up reporting it to the police (Rape Crisis, 2021). In a research report commissioned by the charity Against Violence and Abuse (AVA), it highlighted that women were ignored by the wider system or blamed for their situations ‘time and time again’ (2019, Pg. 9). The same report also highlighted how for women with ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as race/ethnicity, immigration status, sexuality, socio-economic position and experiences living with disability, services aren’t sufficient or fit for purpose (2019).
‘The Secret Barrister’, an anonymous legal expert on Twitter discussed a current domestic abuse case they were working on and in an edifying account, highlighted why just saying ‘tougher sentences’ when addressing violence against women is not enough (2021). They went on to highlight that in domestic abuse cases victims often delay reporting out of fear, it then takes years for the police to investigate due to the complexity of evidence gathering (texts etc) – due to police cuts and refusal to fund ‘ Digital Investigation Units’ there is a backlog of at least 12 months to examine digital devices. When gaining medical records, witness statements, there is a need to liaise with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which has also been underfunded and understaffed – more delays. Once a charge has been made, the case takes a further six months to go to court – not for trial – for the first hearing before a magistrate because of defunding! The case is then sent to Crown Court (if defendant denies charges) and joins the queue for trial slot – for at least a year because of underfunding – the thread goes on and becomes increasingly grim. They end by saying ‘There has never been a better time to be violent towards women and get away with it’ (2021).
Nazir Afzal, solicitor and former chief crown prosecutor for the North West of England, backs this up by adding that the prosecution rate for rape in this country is an unbelievable 1%! Afzal adds, ‘there’s a feeling, quite rightly, that rape has been decriminalised…there are many women who’ll never report a crime because of the way they were treated’ (2021).
I am sure everyone has a view and an opinion on this, mine is that the handling of it is going to need investigating and questions need to be asked. I can only comment on my observations of the police responses and the stark differences in the media between how the Rangers’ crowd was handled and how this peaceful vigil was handled.
Specifically the police statement on the Rangers’ crowd was:
“Our priority was public safety and this included reducing the risk of disorder, road safety and effective crowd management among the complexities of the vociferous crowd…An appropriate policing response was in place throughout the day and officers continually engaged and encouraged compliance with COVID regulations” (Sutherland, 2021).
On Friday 12th March, the Met Police recognised, in High Court, that they had no powers to put a ban on protests – indeed, even during a pandemic, people ‘should not be criminalised en masse for exercising their fundamental right to protest’ (Bradley, 2021, cited in Wall, 2021).
We all understand the photos, recordings and statements are contextual and none of us have the whole picture but the night’s actions deserve an enquiry and important questions need to be asked, specifically – did the police attempt to engage with those at the vigil respectfully and was the violence / physical force dished out with due cause? Dr Greenhalgh, a respected COVID advisor, spoke out against the measures taken – ‘they were outside, they were masked, they were quiet, they were not exercising heavily, scientifically this was a very low risk event until they were shouted at and attacked’ (2021).
Despite Cressida Dick’s statement clarifying the illegal nature of the gathering and the insistence that it wasn’t peaceful, many politicians have heavily criticised the response, including Sadiq Khan, who said the response was not ‘appropriate or proportionate’; Yvette Cooper (MP), who said she couldn’t understand ‘why the strength of feeling about violence against women was not being understood; Shaun Bailey (MP) described the scenes as ‘horrifying’; and lastly, Jeremy Corbyn, who said that the Met Police ‘must answer for their actions’ (Davies, 2021) the Home Secretary, Priti Patel has also requested a full report in to the incident.
Involving everyone in the discussions is integral to change and the conversations needs to be inclusive. Dr Jackson Katz, educator and author, highlights that men need to realise that the same system that produces men who are violent to women, also produce men who are violent towards men, and that this should prompt a collegiate response between the genders ‘rather than being defensive and assuming women are bashing them or that they’re anti-men’ (2021). Dr Katz goes on to add that learned behaviour is passive – that awful murders such as this prompt us to think that the individual was ‘crazy, sick, diabolical’, instead of the fact that he’s a ‘product of a society that has social norms on a spectrum’ and that when you think of those norms on a spectrum it ‘implicates us all’ (2021).
Listening to each other talk – something Christopher Muwanguzi, former CEO of ‘Future Men’ strongly advocates, emphasising the importance of creating environments for all of us to tell our stories. He also encourages self-reflection ‘am I checking my unconscious bias? Am I asking my sister, mother, wife, friend how they have felt? Am I listening?’ (2021).
We are all also responsible for speaking out when behaviour or language is inappropriate so that we don’t perpetuate a system that enables harm. Dr Katz highlights how men can make it clear that they don’t ‘tolerate sexism or misogyny’ and call out this behaviour in peer groups – he calls it ‘peer culture policing’ – and building this approach into education at a young age is part of making this change significant.
When the #metoo movement really took off in 2017, millions of women worldwide came out with stories of sexual assault, abuse and violence – myself included. It was a game changer and toppled many powerful and influential men.
My sincerest hope is that this tragic case will do the same. So, I end with a wish. A wish that in the same way #metoo began changing culture, that the tragic death of an innocent women will provide the mobilisation required of all women and men in the country to change – culture, the justice system, working environments and the absolute necessity for women to be believed and listened to.
As Virginie Le Masson, researcher at ODI states – “For this to happen, it is the responsibility of governments to urgently make gender equality in education a priority. Meanwhile, civil society, particularly women grassroots organisations, must keep the pressure on – and the media must be their ally.” (2019)
Source: James Veysey/Shutterstock
Against Violence and Abuse (2019) Breaking Down Barrier. Available at:https://avaproject.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Breaking-down-the-Barriers-full-report-.pdf (Accessed: 14 March 2021)
Afzal, N. (2021) ‘The time for men to step up is right now!’: what all men can do to help end violence against women’. Interview with Nazir Afzal. Interviewed by Sirin Kale for The Guardian, 17 March. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/17/the-time-for-men-to-step-up-is-right-now-what-all-men-can-do-to-help-end-violence-against-women (Accessed: 18 March 2021)
Davies, G. (2021) Sarah Everard vigil: Home Secretary demands ‘full report’ from Met Police after clashes on Clapham Common. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/03/13/sarah-everard-vigil-news-live-updates-clapham-common-reclaim/ (Accessed: 16 March 2021)
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