Feminism

We have to confront the fact that violence against women is endemic

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I have spent the last few days feeling deeply unsettled. Like many people, I can’t stop thinking about what happened to Sarah Everard. My feelings are a mix of sadness, anger, fear and frustration.

Ending violence against women is something about which I am passionate, and when I looked at the news reports on Sarah Everard’s disappearance, I had two almost disparate responses. 

My first response was emotional. To think that a woman who was just walking home could have her life snatched away by an apparent stranger is difficult to contemplate. We know these things happen and we know that men can be violent and dangerous towards women – our own experiences tell us so. But for something like this to happen and be imprinted on the nation’s consciousness hits home particularly hard. Most of us have experiences of harassment and/or violence at the hands of men. Being followed home is sadly not uncommon; being groped or grabbed at is something we almost expect to happen. With 97% of young women having been subject to sexual harassment, the experience of having our right to live free from fear violated by a man is something most women share. 

To cope with these experiences, we have learnt to treat them as inevitable. Even though we shouldn’t have to, we adapt our behaviours to mitigate them without a second thought. We run home from the station at night and check around us to make sure no-one is following behind. We reluctantly shell out for taxis if it gets past a certain hour. We tell our friends and parents where we’re going and let them know as soon as we get home.

What has happened with Sarah Everard has thrown all our actions into relief. It has underscored why we as women feel the fear that we do when we walk down a quiet street in the dark. It has reaffirmed our suspicions of strangers and strengthened our sense that we are right to be afraid. In turn, this has given rise to an outpouring of emotion. We have allowed such violence to get under our skin for too long. It has seeped into the fabric of society, and we must wake up and rise against it. Men must take responsibility for their violence, and what has happened with Sarah Everard calls for a time of reckoning.

My second response was more complex. Because Sarah Everard was not the only woman to die in recent weeks at the hands of a man. More than 30 women have been killed by men since the start of 2021. As she does every year, Jess Phillips MP read out the names of all the women who had been killed as a result of men’s fatal violence since last year’s International Women’s Day. The statistics are horrifying – the list is too long; the sorrow and horror are relentless. 

Though the nation has been shaken by the murder of Sarah Everard, too often, women’s deaths at the hands of men pass us by. The collective grief we have seen recently is rare – but murders of women by men – also known as femicides – are not.

And yet there is a strange dichotomy at play. While Sarah Everard’s experiences have reminded us of how common male violence against women is, her story and the intense scrutiny of it has perhaps played a mental trick, convincing us that such awful crimes are exceptions rather than the rule. 

This is probably what prompted Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to state that it is ‘incredibly rare’ for a woman to be abducted and killed. While it is true that abductions, especially those carried out by people unknown to a victim, are uncommon, the violence and misogyny underlying them is plentiful in our society. Fortunately, MP Harriet Harman quickly came out in criticism of this statement, declaring that ‘women know abduction and murder is just the worst end of a spectrum of everyday male threat to women.’

Harman’s response is important; it shows that there is a greater public recognition of how embedded misogynistic violence is in our society and its systems. The crimes committed against Everard also symbolise this; the arrest of a police officer in connection with her murder engenders both shock and realisations that gendered violence dwells in every facet of our lives, even those facets that are supposed to protect us. This police officer is not the only one implicated in terrible acts of gendered violence; last year, PC Timothy Brehmer strangled and killed his lover Claire Parry and received a sentence of just ten and a half years – something that gave rise to accusations from some corners that he was being shielded from the full force of the law as a result of his former job. Also last year, police officers took inappropriate photographs with the corpses of two sisters who had been murdered. 

What this illustrates is that our institutions are pervaded by the misogyny and male violence that exists in wider society. Treating any instance of violence that a woman faces at the hands of a man as an isolated or random incident does a disservice to all victims of such crimes. 

The reason that so many women have identified with what happened to Sarah Everard is because we feel (and know) that it could have been any of us. Everyone has to get home somehow, whether they walk, drive, cycle, take public transport or a taxi. Most women will know what it’s like to feel threatened as part of this journey. The fact that Sarah was doing something so ordinary, so everyday has led to a widespread narrative emphasising how at-risk women are even in the most mundane of situations. 

But we are forgetting one crucial thing. We are panicked by what happened to Sarah because it was a stranger homicide. But most women killed by men are killed by men they knew and often by men they loved. We sometimes forget these women because we wrongly assume that our lives bear no relation to theirs. Domestic homicides seem to frighten us less because we believe they are less down to chance. But that is not at all the case. With one in three women experiencing domestic violence in her lifetime, we could sadly all find ourselves in a situation where our lives and safety are threatened by someone we love. 

Violence against women is endemic. We know this from the behaviours we normalise and from the statistics we repeatedly see. But partly because these statistics remain in the realm of the statistical, we fail to see how it ought to be society’s collective grief and anger every time a woman is killed by a man. It is not just women abducted by police officers who are failed by the system, but those who are turned away from refuges, and those who are ignored by probation services. The women given no recourse to public funds or threatened with deportation when they want to escape their abusive partner are failed, as is every woman who finds her abusive partner is allowed continued contact with her children. And make no mistake, any woman could find herself in one of these positions. 

We could all be Sarah Everard. But we could also all be any one of the other women killed by men in the past year. We must remember them, say their names and mobilise for a better future. 

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