Women feared this was coming. They waited, messaging each other in WhatsApp groups and on social media. They talked about their own attempts to stay safe, discussed their near misses.
When the news came on Wednesday evening – that police investigating the disappearance of Sarah Everard had found the remains of a body – a wave of grief crashed over them, followed quickly by anger.
“I have never known such an outpouring of rage and fear,” said the feminist author and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. “She was just walking home, something that we have all done, and which we have all experienced fear doing.”
Public anger, women’s anger, is rising. A Reclaim These Streets vigil is planned for Saturday evening on Clapham Common, London, and at least nine others are planned in towns and cities such as Cambridge, Cardiff, Liverpool and St Andrews. However, organisers have said they have been warned by police they face fines and prosecution under Covid rules. A fundraising drive to launch a court challenge to the Metropolitan police’s interpretation of the rules raised the required £30,000 within hours.
“We are having a #MeToo moment right now,” said the writer Mary Morgan, one of the vigil’s organisers. “Women are sharing their stories, they are showing the world the realities of gender-based violence, and how deep and widespread of an issue it is. We need urgent societal change.”
The facts are stark: a woman dies at the hands of a man every three days, according to the Femicide Census carried out by Karen Ingala Smith and Clarrie O’Callaghan. According to their grim calculation 1,425 women and girls were killed in the UK between 2009 and 2018.
Those deaths are just the tip of a deep, profound and intractable iceberg, said Andrea Simon, the director of End Violence Against Women (Evaw). “Violence against women and girls is an epidemic, and it has reached endemic proportions,” she said.
The last year saw a global and national increase in domestic violence, and an increase in rape reports even as the number of prosecutions has collapsed. This week a UN Women UK survey revealed that almost all young women have experienced sexual harassment in public places.
Evaw’s most recent report from January reels off a battery of horrifying statistics: almost one in three women will experience domestic abuse, two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner, more than half a million women are raped or sexually assaulted each year.
Simon pointed out that it is rare for a woman to be killed, rarer still by a stranger. According to 2018 ONS data, 33% of female homicide victims were killed by partners or ex-partners, compared with 1% of male victims.
But the total number of women killed in the year ending March 2019 increased by 10% from 220 to 241, the second consecutive annual increase and the highest number since 2006.
Women’s anxiety about walking streets at night is not irrational, but informed by knowledge of the violence women face on a daily basis, from micro-aggressions to murder, said Simon.
“We all know that fear. Every woman knows that fear of what might happen, if they just go about their everyday lives without thinking and planning and making decisions about where they can go, what they should wear, where they should sit,” she said.
A major part of the problem is the criminal justice system’s repeated failure, she said. Rape convictions, dropping since 2017, fell to a record low this year – only 1.4% of cases reported to the police resulted in a charge by the CPS. At least 1,000 fewer men accused of rape are currently being prosecuted than two years ago.
“There needs to be a consequence, and the criminal justice system is not delivering that,” said Simon. “Whether it’s sexual harassment, or the most serious sexual assault, there isn’t really a penalty being meted out to the vast majority of offenders – so where’s the deterrent?”
The past 12 months has also been particularly bleak for those working in tackling domestic abuse. During the first national lockdown the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw an 80% increase in calls; Karma Nirvana, which supports victims of so-called “honour-based” abuse and forced marriage reported a 162% average increase in caseloads.
The government’s promise of £165m for domestic abuse support service falls far short of the £393m that Women’s Aid estimates is needed for domestic abuse alone. And the last three months of 2019 saw domestic abuse prosecutions fall by almost a quarter.
No one at government level is joining up the dots, said Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid.
With 92% of defendants in domestic abuse-related prosecutions in the year ending March 2020 recorded as male, and 77% female victims – the crime is heavily gendered.
“There is a blindness about what causes violence against women,” she said. “The abuse, harassment and murder of women is a reflection of systemic misogyny and sexism within society.”
The domestic abuse bill, reaching its final stages, is progress, she said. It will create a new domestic abuse tsar, recognise abuse can be emotional and economic, and end the defence of “rough sex”. Local authorities will have to provide safe accommodation to victims and their children, who are recognised as victims in their own right.
But, said Nazeer, it fails to reference the need and provision for “women’s refuges”, which she fears opens the door to generic provision becoming more common in the sector.
According to Imkaan research, 50% of specialist refuges have been forced to close or have been taken over in the last decade.
Further losses would be terrible news for black women and minoritised women, who are not only at greater risk, but are also more likely to be sidelined and ignored, said Pragna Patel, from Southall Black Sisters.
And while she welcomed the domestic abuse bill, it could not be divorced from a wider conversation about how patriarchy is embedded in state structures, she said.
“We need to explicitly acknowledge that violence against women and girls as a cause and consequence of gender inequality.”
New compulsory relationships and sexuality education in England was a step forward, but undermined by parents’ ability to opt out until the age of 15, she added.
The bill could also help shift the dial on the way violence against women is measured and treated, if an amendment to make all police forces to record misogyny as a hate crime is adopted, said Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow. “I urge every woman who has walked with keys in her hands at night, been abused or attacked online or offline to come forward and be heard,” she said.
“This is our moment for change – women should be equally able to live free from fear of assault or harm simply for who they are.”
But the law can only go so far, said Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice. “Laws are only worth the paper they are written on if they are implemented and combined with informed understanding about the way that women are targeted by male violence,” she said.
After a devastating week, women working to end violence against women and girls were tired, she added. “But we have to remember that it’s a battle,” she said. “That isn’t a reason to give up, it’s a reason to keep fighting.”
In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org