Sarah Everard’s death sent shockwaves across the UK and galvanised mass outrage over women’s safety back in March. Now, the man who kidnapped and murdered her was handed a whole life sentence.
Police officer Wayne Couzens strangled Everard after handcuffing and kidnapping her in south London under the guise of a fake arrest for breaking lockdown rules, driving his victim 80 miles away, raping her and dumping her body in woodland.
At the time, the 33-year-old’s murder seemed to mark what felt like a turning point; women everywhere spoke up about feeling unsafe walking home alone, thousands took to the streets in protests and laid flowers at her vigil, men asked what they could do to help, the government promised things would change. It felt as if gendered violence and the culture of misogyny that feeds it would be tackled once and for all.
Violence against women is all too common place
In the short time since Everard’s murder, it’s difficult to see what’s changed though. Last week the death of Sabina Nessa – a 28-year-old primary school teacher who was killed as she walked to a bar near her flat in Kidbrooke, south-east London – reignited the conversation around women’s safety.
Koci Selamaj, 36, of Eastbourne, east Sussex, appeared before magistrates earlier this week charged with her murder.
Other investigations include Maria Rawlings, 45, who was beaten and strangled as she walked home in Romford, east London in May. Valentin Lazar, 20, from Barking, east London has been charged with her murder.
Agnes Akom, 20, went missing from her home in north-west London in May. Lorry driver Neculai Paizan, 63, of Notting Hill, west London, denies her murder.
PCSO Julia James who was killed while walking her dog in the Kent countryside in April. Callum Wheeler, 21, from Aylesham, Kent, is accused of her murder.
And yet tragically, those cases are a drop in the ocean – Women’s Aid say a man murders a women every three days.
What’s being done to help women feel safer on the streets?
One of the measures Home Secretary Priti Patel announced in July as part of a “radical programme of change” was to create an online tool called StreetSafe, which allows people to anonymously pinpoint locations they felt vulnerable walking in and why.
It launched at the beginning of September and you can add to the database at police.uk/streetsafe.
The Ministry of Justice commissioned a 24/7 rape and sexual assault helpline. The number is 08 08 16 89 111 and there’s a live chat. But call 999 in an emergency.
There were many calls for misogyny to be named a hate crime in the wake of Everard’s death, and a bill doing just that is making its way through the parliamentary bill process at the moment (currently in its second reading in the House of Commons).
It’s important because it will make motivation by misogyny an aggravating factor in criminal sentencing and it will require police forces to record misogyny as a crime – in a way that’s never been done before.
The government’s plans also included the introduction of roles such as ‘Violence Against Women and Girls Transport Champions’, who would help tackle the problems faced by female passengers.
Two female executives in the West Midlands were announced as the first champions in July. Plans also include a dedicated police officer in charge of tackling violence against females.
Rape culture in education settings is due to be tackled as well – with the Department of Education and the Office for Students set to work together to look into sexual harassment and abuse in higher education.
A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) on 17 September urged cross-system change to tackle the epidemic. But Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid, says the report highlighted that “the overall police response to VAWG (violence against women and girls) is inadequate, inconsistent and flawed”.
Do women feel as if the streets are getting any safer?
Couzens may be spending the rest of his life in jail but Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, says the handing down of a long prison sentence must not distract us from all the work that needs to be done to protect women.
“The sentencing of Couzens won’t leave women feeling less afraid. We know that the risk and fear of male violence is woven into the fabric of most women and girls’ daily lives.”
After all, as she points out, Couzens engaged in other forms of abuse in the lead up to the murder.
“The connections between so called ‘lower-level offending’ and the escalation to other harms must be further explored if we are to end and prevent violence against women.”
It’s why what’s perceived as ‘low-level’ sexism or offences are dangerous and predatory. And women need to feel able to report such incidences and feel listened to.
Nazeer says the police need to work urgently to restore the confidence of women. “Female confidence in the police dropped dramatically following Couzens’ arrest and this was underpinned by the heavy-handed and inappropriate treatment of women attending the vigil to remember her life.
“The police need to urgently address the culture of sexism that exists, prioritise violence against women and girls to the same level as terrorism and utilise their funding to ensure that they tackle the issues of male violence towards women.”
Gendered violence and the misogynistic culture that feeds is so widespread and runs so deep that Nazeer says “institution and systemic change is needed” and that police need to work with specialist women’s organisations to make sure victims are getting the right help and response when they report a crime.
“Far too many women continue to tell us that their experiences at the hands of violent men are belittled, disbelieved and dismissed by police and the criminal justice system, the very services that are supposed to protect us,” she says.
Convictions for rape are woefully low and prosecutions are actually falling.
“Too many violent and abusive men escape justice because lenient sentencing does not reflect the severity of their crimes.
For too long violence against women and girls has been the poor relation when it comes to apprehending, monitoring and sentencing offenders, and this is borne largely out of out-dated sexist and misogynistic attitudes.”