Until We Admit The Enormity Of Male Violence We Won’t Be Able To Stamp It Out

We can't wait for another murder before women begin to feel safer. It has to happen now.

male violence, Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry

by Anna Silverman |
Updated on

Here we are again, in despair, mourning the death of another murdered woman, calling for change and asking what it will take for us to feel safe. That we do so even as we struggle to face the details of another woman's murder, revealed as her police officer killer was sentenced, underlines just how far we have to go.

Last month, Sabina Nessa, 28, a primary school teacher, was killed; a man has appeared in court charged with her murder. Hundreds gathered for a vigil to pay their respects in Kidbrooke, southeast London, where her body was found. It all felt horribly familiar.

Just seven weeks earlier saw the vigil for sisters Bibaa Henry, 46, and Nicole Smallman, 27, who were murdered by a 19-year-old man last summer. And five months before that was the vigil for Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old marketing executive raped and murdered by a serving police officer in March.

Today, Wayne Couzens was handed a whole-life sentence for Sarah's murder, after kidnapping her under the guise of arrest from the street as she walked home from a friend's house. Ahead of sentencing Couzens, 48, the judge said the case was 'devastating, tragic and wholly brutal.'

Lord Justice Fulford described the circumstances of the kidnap, rape and murder as 'grotesque.'

He said the seriousness of the case was so 'exceptionally high' that it warranted a whole-life order. 'The misuse of a police officer's role such as occurred in this case in order to kidnap, rape and murder a lone victim is of equal seriousness as a murder for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.'

Her death was seen as a watershed moment and prompted calls to tackle the epidemic of male violence against women to reach fever pitch. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK, and two women every week are killed by a current or ex-partner and other close relative, according to the Femicide Census.

The outpouring of grief and anger saw us unite in recognition of the tactics we do on autopilot to keep safe: walk home with keys between fingers; go the long way if it’s better lit; send the ‘got home safe’ message when we get there and rely on whoever we’ve been with to sound the alarm if it never arrives.

Everyone’s Invited, a website where survivors share their stories, exposed the sheer scale of the violence we’ve been trying to protect ourselves from and the severity of rape culture when they revealed thousands of testimonies earlier this year.

Politicians had no choice but to respond and new measures were announced, including a promise of funding for better lighting and CCTV, and an online tool allowing women and girls to record where they feel unsafe.

But seven months on, Sabina’s death and the sentencing of Sarah's killer have reignited the debate on gendered violence and made us question: what has happened since the collective outrage and calls for reform?

It can feel like we’re actually moving backwards. Recent Grazia research found 48% of women feel less safe when out alone despite the promises that followed Sarah's death, while Home Office figures show that fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police last year resulted in the suspect being charged. Victims' Commissioner Dame Vera Baird has warned that the level of prosecutions has dropped so low that ‘what we are witnessing is the decriminalisation of rape’.

A new national police chief responsible for tackling violence against women and girls was also among the measures announced. But for many, that falls far short of the systemic change needed: one woman a week reports a serving police officer for domestic or sexual violence, according to the Centre for Women’s Justice.

Last month, we learned how Sarah’s murderer Wayne Couzens stopped, 'arrested' and handcuffed her under the pretence of enforcing Covid restrictions, even flashing his warrant card. He was able to use his police role and equipment to kidnap, rape and kill a woman, despite reportedly being nicknamed ‘The Rapist’ by his police colleagues, and after alleged police failures to investigate claims he exposed himself days before he killed Sarah, as well as six years earlier. Is it any wonder that women do not feel safe?

This all comes at a time when safety fears are already heightened amid a taxi shortage, caused by a lack of drivers and the fuel crisis, and the continual closure of the night Tube in London, which means some of our safest methods of getting home have been taken away. Women can feel forced to put socialising on hold or risk their safety.

After a lifetime of being taught not to wear revealing clothes, not to get too drunk, otherwise we’re ‘asking for it', and to avoid dark streets and stay vigilant, we’re devastated and furious. We're tired of being told it's our responsibility to stay safe when the problem isn’t us, it’s male violence. It’s misogyny that needs tackling.

We grew up with the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. Post #MeToo it thankfully became ‘boys will be held accountable for their actions’. Now we need men and boys to join in the fight to tackle male violence against women and girls. Of course some already have, but too many will respond with 'not all men' rather than work actively to dismantle a culture that lets violence against women thrive.

The legal and policing framework must change too. Behaviour like stalking, indecent exposure and cyberflashing (the sending of unsolicited explicit images, which Grazia is campaigning to make illegal), need to be taken more seriously and recognised as potential gateway crimes to bigger offences. Because until we grapple with the enormity of male violence – including where it flourishes and how it spreads – we won’t be able to stamp it out.

At the very least, we saw a sign of progress last month when singer R Kelly was finally found guilty of racketeering and trafficking after years of sexually abusing women and children. It’s hard to celebrate the verdict though, when it took decades of allegations and abuse on an epic scale to get to this point. While Kelly now faces up to 20 years behind bars, the process has got to be made swifter and smoother for the sake of survivors.

In the UK, we need to see drastic changes to the criminal justice system, so it stops repeatedly failing victims of sexual violence. Victim-blaming must end, the process of seeking justice must be made easier and properly resourced, including support for victims, and police and prosecutors need to re-evaluate how they handle these cases.

We can't wait for another murder before women begin to feel safer. It has to happen now.

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