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What will it take for women to feel safe?

Trigger warning: This article contains discussions about violence and abuse which may be difficult for some readers.


As a woman, safety is something that is always at the back of my mind. It's a frequent consideration in the decisions I make. I think it's safe to say it is the same for most, if not all of the women around me.


It's not the first time I've written on this topic. Three years ago, I wrote an article following the horrendous crimes committed against Sarah Everard, a woman who was just walking home. It felt important to raise the discussion on our platform, but I hate that I ever had to write it. Only 6 months later, I wrote another one. This time following the horrendous crimes committed against Sabina Nessa, another woman who was just walking home. I hate that I had to write that piece too.


I also hate that I have lost count of the number of times I could have easily regurgitated the same words about our worrying lack of safety. Because it happens so much. Each time serves as a stark reminder of what these women have experienced, how terrified they must have been, and how they couldn't have done anything to stop it. What's worse? The thought that behind every Sarah and Sabina are hundreds of women whose cases we didn't even hear about.


I hate it all. We all do.


This March was the third anniversary of the tragic loss of Sarah Everard. Marking this poignant date, the BBC aired a documentary on her case, 'Sarah Everard: The Search for Justice.' I watched the documentary and was hit particularly hard by how it concluded. On just a black screen were some facts. Facts which showed how little has changed in our safety. Facts showing things like, in the year since Sarah's murder, 138 women were killed by men, or the main suspect was a man (from Femicide Census). Facts showing that in the same year, 798000 women experienced sexual assault in England and Wales alone. It begs the question, when will there be actual change for women’s safety? Are the conversations staying just that, or is action being taken?


What more will it take, if not the lives of countless women?




Did you know that in the UK a woman is killed at the hands of a man every 3 days? That’s at least 350 since the murder of Sarah. The point where we thought there might finally be change. The statistics show no such reduction since before her murder, leaving many questioning whether the discussions on tackling this issue have been futile empty promises.


Exposure and experience of such violence is undoubtedly life-changing and damaging for anyone affected. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently conducted a survey which showed that Psychiatrists in Britain believe abuse and violence of women and girls to be the main reason for higher rates of mental ill health than men and boys, which is on top of any physical health consequences faced. And the risk and constant threat of danger is also an issue. United Nations Women highlight the reduction of freedom, the limits imposed on women and the impact on health and well-being.


Of course, no one is immune to the risk of violence, however, women and girls are disproportionately affected. It can be argued that a culture of sexism and misogyny (prejudice against women) has been deep-rooted, but causes far more damaging consequences than is often dismissed as humour. What these attitudes do is influence attitudes to women and girls which can become a ‘catalyst’ to the more serious forms of gender-based violence. Following the murder of Sarah Everard, conversations on such issues were sparked globally, questioning how society can take control of the ever-growing issue of women’s safety. One idea was to formally state misogyny as a hate crime, punishable by law. However, it has not been considered a law previously due to concerns about principles of equality. The Government and prominent groups agree that there could be inadvertent harm in actioning such a law, demonstrating the complexity faced in trying to tackle issues at a societal level.



So how else is change being made?




In the case of Sarah Everard in particular, a case which really seemed to shift discussions of women’s safety, it is hard to ignore that part of the unrest stemmed from the perpetrator, Wayne Couzens, being a serving Police Officer who abused that position of power to commit these heinous crimes. The people who are supposed to keep us safe, protect us, and serve justice for us, can also disrespect, abuse, and murder us. It’s a harrowing thought.


Issues in the police service was a significant part of the BBC documentary as they explored the warning signs pre-empting Couzens’ violence and the damaging comments made by fellow officers surrounding the treatment of women. On the 24th February 2024, Lawyer Lady Elish Angiolini, published an independent inquiry urging for a ‘radical overhaul’ in police recruitment as she found that Couzen’s had a 20-year-long history of sexual offences and should never have been allowed to be a police officer. The inquiry highlighted a further series of failures which meant that on numerous occasions where Couzen’s should have been caught, oversights were made, that could have been an opportunity to prevent further offences. These failings within a system established to enforce law and protect the public do nothing to assure us that we can be kept safe. The report, while focussing on the police service specifically in this case, also looked to wider systems, arguing that the sexism and misogyny embedded into society, as well as policing, are enabling for escalation to such acts further along the spectrum.


Following the inquiry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley responded, echoing the horror of the ‘betrayal of trust’ from an officer abusing their power to commit such terrible crimes and reflected on the damaged relationship between the police and the public as a consequence. Following Mayor of London Sadiq Khan publicly highlighting the failures of police following the Angiolini report, Sir Rowley supported the recommendations made in the inquiry and pleaded for equal funding from future governments for tackling violence against women as for terrorism, comparing the issue to a national security threat. Sir Rowley remarked that the enormity of the issue is of such scale that while progress is being made, it can only be done with support in resourcing.  


While there is clear motivation to drive change, it is clear that we still face barriers which need to be overcome to truly make action come to life. I ended my article about Sarah Everard 3 years ago by writing, “I hope that we can honour the memory of Sarah Everard and all women affected by, and lost to, such appalling crimes, by making the change that is so desperately needed.” It is a heavy realisation that that single ray of hope through that darkness 3 years ago so far has not surmounted to change in the number of women still affected, however, it seems the intention for change is shifting. Words alone are no longer enough. However, we must remain hopeful that we can reach the point where action is taken and tangible movement in society is made so that women and girls can have the basic rights of safety and freedom they deserve.


 

If you feel particularly affected by the conversations surrounding women’s safety, some resources are freely accessible for support:


Victim support— Free confidential support for victims of crime or traumatic events

 

Samaritans— Support for anyone struggling

 

Shout— Text messaging support service for anyone struggling to cope

 

Women and Girls Network— Supporting women and girls affected by gendered violence

 

Ascent Advice line— Information, advocacy and support for gendered violence and abuse

 

Rape Crisis— Confidential and emotional support for victims of sexual violence

 

Survivors Trust— Directory of local support


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