The death of Sarah Everard has reignited conversations about male violence against women in public spaces – and while the headlines might move on, the problem won’t disappear. We asked legal experts, MPs and campaigners to share their ideas for making women safer on the street.
In the wake of Sarah Everard’s death, conversations about male violence against women have come to the fore in a way not seen since the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017. While the discourse around #MeToo (a movement originally founded to empower women of colour who had been sexually abused) often focused on workplace sexual misconduct, the current conversation is preoccupied by the public realm: by the pavement, night bus and taxi backseat, not the office, restaurant kitchen or factory floor.
Over the last few weeks, women from across the UK have shared stories of how they adapt their lives to protect themselves from male violence and harassment on the street. Many men – at least those who aren’t inclined to join the #NotAllMen brigade – have sought out advice on how they can make women feel safer. Hard questions have also been asked about the role of the police and criminal justice system in perpetrating and enabling violence against women, after a Metropolitan Police officer was charged with Everard’s kidnap and murder, and the same police force subsequently shut down a vigil mourning her death.
Whenever a painful subject shoots to the top of the news agenda, it can feel exhausting and overwhelming for people whose lives are directly affected by the issue at hand. Women across the UK have had their hearts broken by Everard’s death – and many may be feeling cynical at the sight of certain politicians speaking about male violence and heavy-handed policing as if these are only now problems worthy of serious attention. For many women, the media and political response to Everard’s case has created a particularly complex range of emotions when compared to the relative lack of mainstream outrage over the deaths of women of colour such as Blessing Olusegun.
Nevertheless, the government has now announced a handful of new policies ostensibly intended to improve women’s public safety. Investment in neighbourhood measures such as street lighting and CCTV will be doubled to £45million, while a contentious pilot project involving undercover police officers monitoring areas around clubs and bars is also in the works.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has framed the government’s controversial police, crime, sentencing and courts bill as a positive for female survivors of male violence, and the government has also confirmed it will ask police to record violent crimes motivated by sex or gender from autumn 2021 – a victory for feminist activists and MPs who have campaigned for years for misogyny to be made a hate crime.
This flurry of proposed measures, and its unmistakable focus on policing, has not been unanimously well-received. “Sarah [Everard] and all the others survivors and victims of police violence deserve more than the government rewarding police officers with even more powers to control and confine us,” said the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, which has led protests against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. “Women’s safety is being used as a pretext for extending the police’s capacity to police and imprison.”
Members of Sisters Uncut are far from alone in opposing the bill: Labour, the Green Party, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party all voted against it. Neither do all feminists support the decision to start treating misogyny as a hate crime. The most recent available data from the Home Office shows that suspected perpetrators are not prosecuted, let alone convicted, in a staggering 98.6% of reported rape cases in England and Wales. Against this backdrop, some critics argue that properly enforcing existing legislation should be our priority.
It’s not surprising that there’s disagreement among feminists over how to keep women safe from male violence and harassment in public spaces. As Lola Olufemi observes in her book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, published last summer, the movement for gender equality has always been “complicated and messy… There [is] no coherence or consensus on accepted principles in the feminist movement. If anything, it [is] defined by conflict.” This observation remains as true as ever.
But what is clear is that the status quo cannot prevail. It’s been 44 years since our mothers’ generation launched the first Reclaim The Night marches in Leeds, fighting for women’s right to walk the streets safely after dark; we can’t wait another four decades for real change.
Below, Stylist speaks with politicians, experts and campaigners about the practical changes that could keep women safe from male violence and harassment in public spaces.
Changing the law
Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for women and equalities, tells Stylist that making misogyny a hate crime is “a step in the right direction towards ending violence, abuse and harassment of women on our streets”.
It’s not the only law change that Labour has backed. The party recently launched a “10-point plan to keep women safe”, including a proposal for new legislation that would make street harassment illegal.
“The government have dragged their heels on action against violence against women and girls,” says de Cordova. “I hope this can be a watershed moment for change.”
Making public sexual harassment a criminal offence is also one of the goals of campaign group Our Streets Now.
“We have to harness the tools of the society in which we reside,” says Maya Tutton, the group’s co-founder. “Our overarching goal has been, and always will be, to end male violence against women and girls. For now, in a society structured by law, one of the most effective routes is to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence.”
Changing the criminal justice system
Most experts acknowledge that introducing new laws isn’t enough to tackle misogynistic violence and harassment. We also have to address how existing laws are interpreted and enforced by the criminal justice system.
“I do think we should look at legislation, specifically criminalising street harassment and sexual abuse in public spaces,” says Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project. “But I don’t think that legislation will work unless we have a functional system where women can use it. That means a police force that is fit for purpose, that women – particularly women of colour, sex workers and trans women – feel comfortable reporting to.”
Currently, it’s clear that this vision of the police force and criminal justice system does not exist. “The criminal justice system is close to collapse,” says Debaleena Dasgupta, a solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), which recently took the CPS to court over its failure to prosecute rape cases. “Years of cuts have led to deeper problems, one of which is unacceptable delay. The few cases which even get to court can take several years to do so.”
New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that fewer than one in six women in England and Wales report crimes of sexual assault to the police, and that adults of Black and mixed ethnicity are more likely to experience sexual assault. Dasgupta notes that Black and Asian women and those from other minority ethnic backgrounds will often have a very different experience of the criminal justice system to white women.
“The misogyny they deal with is aggravated by racism and xenophobia, [and] nothing is being done by the state to address this issue,” she says.
Dr Aisha K Gill CBE is a professor of criminology at Roehampton University, who specialises in criminal justice responses to violence against Black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women in the UK. “Positive, effective responses from the police [in cases of violence against women] are often a postcode lottery – or even a matter of which officer a victim encounters,” she tells Stylist. “Such changes require investment, commitment and accountability.”
Individuals need to feel “safe in reporting”, Dr Gill continues. “Victims and survivors want to be believed by the police. They want to feel confident that, when they access the criminal justice system, their rights will be protected… That’s a practical reality of what women and girls want in our communities.”
ONS survey data indicates that 75% of people in England and Wales had confidence in their local police in the year ending March 2019. But given that two Metropolitan Police officers were suspended last summer after allegedly taking selfies next to the dead bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and that an officer with West Midlands Police was just spared jail after drunkenly attacking a woman on the street, it’s understandable that some people don’t believe true police reform is possible. Sisters Uncut and Our Streets Now are both ultimately in favour of defunding and abolishing the police.
However, Bates notes that the British Transport Police (BTP) successfully overhauled its approach to sexual harassment and assault allegations in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) and Hollaback UK, resulting in a 32% increase in detections of perpetrators of sexual offences on public transport.
“They did it by completely centring survivors, working with expert organisations and retraining the police, and it was absolutely transformative,” she says. “So it can be done, it’s just that the political will isn’t there.”
Changing the conversation
All of the experts Stylist spoke with for this piece agreed that education is essential in tackling the attitudes that underpin male violence. It’s not just young people who need to be educated: a recent report by CWJ, Imkaan, EVAW and Rape Crisis called for the creation of a government-backed awareness campaign about consent and rape myths, while activists such as Jackson Katz and David Challen have emphasised the importance of men speaking with one another about male violence against women.
But there is widespread consensus that conversations about misogynistic violence and harassment need to start at a young age – in the home as well as at school. “This issue of sexual harassment is endemic and [has] been normalised for a very long time,” says Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE, executive director of Forward, an African women-led UK organisation working to end violence against women and girls.
She adds that schools and teachers must be provided with the resources to run sex and relationships education lessons successfully and “build bridges with families to reinforce these fundamentals of respect, equality, understanding boundaries and safety”.
In 2020, Our Streets Now launched its ‘Our Schools Now’ campaign, calling for public sexual harassment to be covered in schools. Bates agrees that more education is urgently needed. While researching her latest book, Men Who Hate Women: The Extremism Nobody Is Talking About, she found evidence that violently misogynistic online groups are “deliberately targeting boys as young as 11 for radicalisation”.
“They’re finding [boys] in the places where they congregate, whether that’s gaming livestreams or bodybuilding forums, and very effectively using technology as a way of grooming them,” she says. “We don’t join the dots between serious abuses against women and the normalisation of sexist attitudes, but they are of course connected… If we don’t tackle what we’re teaching young people, and if we don’t recognise them as vulnerable victims of a form of radicalisation, then we’re sitting on an absolute time bomb.”
Positive education strategies include a greater focus on internet literacy, positive role modelling from male guest speakers and staff, and the creation of non-judgemental spaces for boys to talk about their feelings, says Bates.
“For young men, the thing that’s really seductive about these [misogynistic online] communities is that they offer a sense of belonging, purpose and brotherhood. It’s not a coincidence that these communities are becoming so popular just as we’ve removed those exact same opportunities for young people with the slashing of funding for youth centres,” she says.
“It’s almost impossible to de-radicalise someone, but prevention is much more effective and much easier.”
Looking at the whole picture
Tackling violent misogyny is slow, hard work. Experts say that the government has to accept that there is no quick fix – and must continue to prioritise this issue long after it’s stopped making the News at 10. “Women’s rights lawyers and groups know there is no single solution to the problem,” says Debaleena Dasgupta.
“The criminal justice system has to work hand in hand with non-criminal justice interventions in terms of addressing the root causes of violence against women,” agrees Dr Gill. “And you have to go beyond law to deal with the root causes of how violence against women and girls manifests itself.
“We have the right to be free from fear of everyday forms of violence and abuse. We should be calling out male entitlement, privilege, misogyny and abuse, and we need to hold all perpetrators to account. It’s absolutely essential – and justice needs to be done.”
If you have been a victim of sexual assault or another gender-based crime, find advice and support at endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk. For tips on how to respond to street harassment, visit ihollaback.org. For free and confidential legal advice, contact Rights Of Women’s telephone advice line.
Dr Aisha Gill CBE is currently fundraising for survivors of domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) during the Covid-19 pandemic. Support the campaign