We are shaken by the news of Sarah Everard who was kidnapped and murdered last week when walking home. We tremble further in the knowledge that the person charged with Sarah’s murder is a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police.
We are shaken by the news that a protest against Sarah’s death, and the treatment of women more broadly, was stopped in its tracks. When women went anyway, refusing to ask for the right to mourn and to be heard, the police used disproportionate enforcement action—the very violence we were protesting against.
We are shaken by the many instances of violence against women which are not listened to, investigated, or challenged.
We remember Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, whose names we should all recall, who were murdered in a park last year after celebrating a friend’s birthday, and with whom police officers took selfies as they lay dead. The police failed to investigate this case until their family found their bodies.
We remember Blessing Olusegun, whose body was found on a beach last September and whose death was treated as ‘unexplained’ rather than ‘suspicious’ by the police.
Sarah, Nicola, Bibaa and Blessing’s cases are emblematic of a deep-rooted culture of violence against women, a pandemic in and of itself. Our calls for safety must acknowledge this wider picture and must elevate the voices of women of colour, migrant women and trans women, who are often at even greater risk on our streets, and whose cases the police routinely fail to investigate. As these events and those on Saturday night illustrate, the police cannot be trusted to defend the rights of women.
And neither can the government. Women in poverty are bearing the brunt of the state’s neoliberal policies. A decade of cuts has left specialist women’s services on their knees and has slashed council housing stock, hindering women’s ability to flee dangerous homes and live in safety. The UK’s immigration system exposes migrant women to destitution, exploitation and abuse.
The law has also repeatedly failed women, and this week is no exception. Our right to protest is currently under attack by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which will allow the police to intervene at protests to prevent ‘impact’ and ‘noise’ where they ‘serious[ly] disrupt […] the running of an organisation’, e.g. a protest outside the Houses of Parliament. This bill will curb women’s ability to speak up against the ongoing, systematic violence they face. This is not only a problem in the UK; it affects women internationally, and our thoughts go also to Polish activists who today labelled the Warsaw Police Headquarters “The Torture Headquarters”, highlighting the police brutality that has taken place during protests against the abortion ban in the country over the past year.
The power structures which allow violence against women to continue unchallenged must be uprooted. While street lights are useful, they can only address the very tip of the iceberg. Money should instead be spent on tackling the structural causes of the danger women face on our streets.
We must demand:
- An end to austerity, to be replaced by long-term funding for women’s services, social housing and a robust welfare system;
- A criminal justice system which believes rather than retraumatises women;
- An immigration system which protects women from male and state violence
- An end to the culture of disbelief surrounding women’s experiences; and
- An understanding that racism, homophobia, transphobia and classism must be tackled for all women’s lives to be protected.
The burden of making these demands must not fall on the shoulders of women alone. This is everyone’s fight.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Assata Shakur.