Mina Smallman says the deaths of her daughters Nicole and Bibaa, who were stabbed in a London park last June, did not result in the same public “support [or] outcry” as that of Sarah Everard.
The disappearance of 33-year-old Sarah Everard as she walked home through south London on 3 March – and the subsequent charging of a Metropolitan Police officer with her kidnap and murder – sent waves of shock, grief and fury throughout the UK and around the world. Hundreds of people attended a vigil for Everard on Clapham Common on 13 March, while social media was awash with women sharing stories of times men had harassed or assaulted them in public spaces.
Everard’s death has also prompted political action. On the day her body was identified by police, the government reopened its public consultation on violence against women and girls, inviting survivors to share their experiences (information gathered through the survey will inform the government’s Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, due to be published this summer). The cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee, meanwhile, announced it would be launching a new inquiry into violence against women and girls, focusing initially on why just 1.4% of reported rape cases currently result in a prosecution.
The tragedy of Everard’s story, and the importance of tackling the wider problem of violence against women and girls in the UK, cannot be denied. But as we mourn Everard, important questions must also be asked about why the disappearance and apparent murder of a white woman sparks widespread outrage – but similar cases involving women of colour do not.
Now, the mother of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry – two Black women who were found dead in a park in north-west London last June – has spoken out about this discrepancy. In an interview with Mishal Husain on BBC Radio 4 on 26 March, Mina Smallman said she was “convinced” that race had influenced the response to her daughters’ murders, describing it as “criminal”.
“I think the notion of ‘all people matter’ is absolutely right, but it’s not true. Other people have more kudos in this world than people of colour,” Smallman said.
“My girls and Sarah – they didn’t get the same support, the same outcry.”
Nicole Smallman, a 27-year-old photographer, and Henry, a social worker, went missing after celebrating Henry’s 46th birthday in Fryent Country Park, Wembley, on 6 June 2020. Their bodies were discovered in the park the following day.
Post-mortem tests revealed they died from multiple stab wounds, in what is believed to have been a random and unprovoked attack. A 19-year-old man has been charged on suspicion of murdering the sisters, and is due to stand trial from 7 June. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Shortly after Smallman and Henry’s deaths, two Metropolitan Police officers were arrested and suspended from their duties for allegedly taking selfies with the sisters’ bodies and sharing the images via WhatsApp. Writing for Stylist last June, Danielle Dash said: “I have no choice but to believe that Nicole and Bibaa were denied dignity in death because they were Black women. It was an unabashed act of misogynoir.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Mina Smallman said she empathised profoundly with Everard’s family, adding that the marketing executive’s death – allegedly at the hands of a serving Metropolitan Police officer – had sent her and her husband “back in time emotionally”.
“I know what that family, the parents, will be going through and it is a hell,” she said. “You can’t begin to understand what it is to lose a child under those circumstances and then to have a further betrayal – [by] the very organisation who… we have an agreement with that they will protect us, they will honour us, and behave in a way that gives our deceased dignity.”
Referencing the fact that a police officer guarding the site where Everard’s remains were found in Kent has been reported to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), after allegedly sending a meme to colleagues that joked about abducting and murdering women, Smallman continued: “To hear that not only had Sarah’s parents lost Sarah, but they had the indignity of having someone [sending] a meme – how heartless. How heartless.”
In November, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was formally asked to consider criminal charges against the two officers alleged to have been involved in taking photographs at the scene of Nicole Smallman and Henry’s deaths. Another six Met officers were also revealed to be under investigation for receiving the photos in a WhatsApp group and failing to report them.
On 26 March, the Metropolitan Police told the BBC that the IOPC was still “considering the actions of police when Bibaa and Nicole were reported missing”. The Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, said: “I recognise trust in the Met is still too low in some Black communities, as is their trust in many other institutions. I feel very sorry about that. It’s something I’ve worked to change and I commit now to stepping up that work further.”
Mina Smallman noted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan had all gone “on record to express their deepest sympathy” for Everard and her family. She said that many of her friends and colleagues had asked her: “Excuse me, where was this level of coverage and outrage for two of your daughters murdered?”
Khan tweeted in June that he was “deeply saddened” by Smallman and Henry’s murders, and subsequently said that “Londoners will rightly be disgusted” by “the [Metropolitan Police Service’s] handling of their disappearance and murder”. However, Stylist could find no evidence that either Johnson or Patel have ever made public statements about Smallman and Henry.
Mina Smallman is not the only person to flag the difference in responses to cases of missing white women and women of colour. The phenomenon is so prevalent in countries around the world that it even has a name: Missing White Women Syndrome.
“White women occupy a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting,” Charlton McIlwain, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, has said. “Our victims are colour-coded… Our national ideal of who is vulnerable – and who holds victim status – are those who are white and female.”
McIlwain was speaking about the US, but it’s clear that his words could also apply to the UK. We can, and should, grieve for Sarah Everard. But we must also honour the memories of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman – and reflect on why it took the death of a middle-class white woman to prompt a national reckoning with gender-based violence.
Images: Shutterstock; Getty