Twelve months since Sarah Everard’s death shocked the nation, Claire Cohen reflects on her devastating legacy.
On 3 march 2021, 33-year-old Sarah Everard did everything ‘right’. She walked home through well-lit streets, wore flat shoes and ‘sensible’ clothing. She called her boyfriend en route. It was 9pm.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next, on that grim night almost a year ago. The horror that unfolded despite Sarah following the ‘rules’ that govern our actions – even if we’re not always aware of it.
Sarah woke us up. She made us look again at the keys clutched tightly in the palms of our hands, at the ‘home safe!’ texts and say: enough. For that, a generation of women will never forget her name.
Yet she was so much more than a name or the court reports, or forensics analysis. It’s unbearable to consider how her family might feel as this milestone approaches. How desperately they must miss the woman they described as ‘caring, funny, clever, practical’. ‘She was a good person,’ said her mum, Susan, sharing how she hugged her daughter’s dressing gown for comfort.
I’ll always remember her sister, Katie, recalling how ‘We had to go to the flat and pack up Sarah’s whole life – washing left hanging up, half-sewn outfits, deliveries waiting to be returned, packages waiting at the door ready to be opened.’
That could be any one of us – and, a year ago, thousands of women felt that way. I did, living near where she was taken – my local streets filled with leaflets featuring her sunny face in those few days when she was missing, not murdered, raped, strangled or burnt. I went to her vigil and retreated in fear as officers stormed the Clapham Common bandstand, trampling our handwritten tributes and flowers; arresting women for expressing the wish to feel safe.
The number of women who have died since Sarah – in every corner of Britain – suggests we were right to feel that way.
By January this year, at least 118 had been killed, with a man the main suspect. We know the names of some: teacher Sabina Nessa, 28; Julia James, 53, killed while walking her dog; Ashling Murphy, 23, attacked while jogging. (A man has accepted responsibility for the death of Sabina but denies murder; the men charged in the cases of Julia and Ashling both deny murder also.)
For every woman who makes headlines, dozens never do. Karen Ingala Smith, who runs Counting Dead Women, says, ‘On average in the UK, every three days a woman is killed by a man.’ We are 51% of the population, yet our safety is treated as a side issue. For all the promises made in the last year, action has been limited. Too often, the responsibility has been turned back on women to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.
A YouGov poll in November found that just 29% of women trust the police. Between 2019 and 2020, 160 Met police officers were accused of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct. An Independent Office for Police Conduct report uncovered hundreds of sexually violent messages sent between Met police officers, but dismissed as ‘laddish banter’. Met chief Cressida Dick might have resigned but the culture of misogyny remains.
It goes on. The inquiry into Sarah’s death is non-statutory – it has no legal power to compel witnesses to testify, or disclose evidence. Justice Secretary Dominic Raab is determined that misogyny won’t become a hate crime, so the dots between sex offences – like flashing and the more serious ones they can lead to – will remain unconnected.
So is there any hope? We have new campaigners and activists. There’s more noise than ever around violence against women – it has been added to the Strategic Policing Requirement, which sets out the threats that require a national policing capability to ensure they’re tackled effectively, elevating it to the same level as terrorism. Baroness Louise Casey is leading a review into Met police standards. Will we have real change by Sarah’s second anniversary? In her memory, let’s keep pushing for it.
It’s easy to feel hopeless, but you don’t have to. So what next?
The death of Sarah Everard threw a spotlight on male violence and the wider issue of how misogyny permeates our society. Tackling this should not be women’s burden to bear, but many feel a renewed sense of urgency to fight. Meaningful change is slow and difficult to achieve – but it is possible. Here, leaders and activists share their advice.
Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party
Meaningful, feminist change comes from everywhere, including community organising, volunteering with local organisations and petitioning your local councillors and MP to address a need in your community. Never feel helpless or hopeless, you can make a difference. Like the ripple from a stone thrown into a pool, change is made up of waves that gradually spread out further and further. The size of the stone isn’t the point – all that matters is that one is cast.
Gina Martin, campaigner, speaker and writer
Spend time with those who came before you who felt the exhaustion, frustration, fear and did something with it: bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Angela Y Davis. Then learn from leaders now: Koa Beck, Emma Dabiri, Roxane Gay, Laura Bates. You’ll understand more, feel less alone, and you’ll recognise the power we have; three ingredients that’ll help you fight.
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow
Our laws still don’t recognise how misogyny drives violence against women, hampering our ability to tackle these crimes. Over the coming weeks, MPs will have the chance to change this by accepting the Newlove Amendment to the Policing Bill. Reach out to your MP and ask them to support this. Help ensure that our legal system treats violence against women and girls seriously.
Jamie Klingler, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets
Being an advocate and mentor at work and in your social circles is powerful. Make sure that your colleagues and friends know that you will listen without judgement and support them as they navigate difficult situations, whether that be reporting behaviour to police or HR or just being a shoulder to cry on. Most importantly, in all instances, believe women.
Deeba Syed, senior lawyer at Rights of Women
At Rights of Women, we support women through all the ways male violence permeates their lives, including sexual harassment at work – we campaigned to change the law so employers are forced to prevent it. You actually have the legal right to challenge your employer if your workplace is sexist. So set that meeting, have the talk – your voice has more power than you know.
Sophie Walker, political activist and founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party
Male violence against women has multiple impacts. Physical abuse is widespread but there is also a subsequent impact that can span homelessness, hunger, poverty, mental health problems and alcohol dependency. Supporting women’s organisations dealing with those things helps women back on their feet. Note too that those led by and for minoritised women are always hardest hit by lack of funding.