In the UK, a woman is killed by a man every three days. According to the Femicide Census, 1,425 women were murdered by men between 2008 and 2018 – and the rate has only gone up since.
In 2020 alone, approximately 620,000 women suffered rape, sexual assault or an attempted sex attack, but only one in six reported the crime. That same year, an estimated 1.6 million women in England and Wales were victims of domestic abuse.
Violence against women and girls is a national emergency. If our criminal justice system doesn’t change the way it responds to these crimes, women will keep dying at the hands of men.
The murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who disappeared from the Clapham Common area on 3 March 2021 and whose remains were subsequently found in a wood in Kent, has put the issue back in the spotlight. Partly this is because the man charged with this crime is a serving police office. But also because it has brought to light how violence against women and girls is still so common – and how little is being done to remedy the situation.
This is not the first time violence against women and girls has sparked major social and political responses across the globe, but all too often society and the media blame these crimes on their victims. The Metropolitan police responded to Sarah Everard’s murder by issuing guidance to women about staying safe in the Clapham area, but no such guidance was issued to men telling them not to be violent.
In the 21 years I have been seeking justice for victims of gender-based violence, I have dealt with countless instances of cases being dropped by the police or by the Crown Prosecution Service. In challenging these decisions, I have discovered that the prosecution’s case often falls apart because of police officers who misinterpret, destroy or inaccurately record evidence – or do not even gather key evidence in the first place. In many instances, this is because the police deem the accused more credible than the victim.
Indeed, the criminal justice system sometimes considers a delay in reporting to discredit the victim, though it is widely accepted that trauma prevents many victims coming forward in the immediate aftermath of an assault – not least because they are too distressed to recount their experiences coherently.
Police officers who ignore the testimony of female victims and witnesses are rarely reprimanded, even when there are dire consequences for the victim, and for the pursuit of justice. There are many cases where this has led to men committing further crimes, despite having been reported to the police by previous victims.
One notable example is the police failures in the case of serial sex offender John Worboys. In 2007, the Metropolitan Police Service failed to respond adequately to a woman’s sexual assault allegation against him. Worboys had not only committed numerous prior assaults, but would go on to commit many more after police believed his story over the victim’s and let him go.
In 2008, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (now the Independent Office of Police Conduct) established a group of experts with specialist knowledge of gender-based violence to help investigate these police failings; I was one of those experts. The investigation discovered a series of missed opportunities to prevent John Worboys from committing further offences. As a result, five police officers were disciplined. John Worboys was subsequently convicted of 19 charges, including rape, sexual assault and administering a substance with intent to rape.
The police’s handling of the John Worboys investigation was woefully inadequate and marked by a series of systemic failures. There was also questionable decision making on the part of the Parole Board, whose risk assessments allowed a serial rapist to roam free. One of the other core findings was that more must be done to improve public confidence in police responses to reports of rape and other sexual crimes in the wake of this and a long history of similar failures.
That was more than 10 years ago, but it is striking how little has changed in the interim. While Sarah Everard’s case has captured widespread attention, we must also remember the numerous other women – particularly women of colour – whose equally tragic deaths have not galvanised the same levels of public anger.
In June 2020, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were murdered in a London park. In September 2020, 21-year-old Blessing Olusegun was found dead on Bexhill seafront; while a post-mortem concluded that Blessing had drowned, campaigners do not believe there was a full investigation into her death. In February 2021, Bennylyn Burke and her daughter, Jellica, went missing from their home in South Gloucestershire; their bodies were found in Dundee on 18 March 2021. On the same day, Najeeba Al-Ariqy’s partner was convicted of her murder at Birmingham Crown Court (I was also the expert witness for the prosecution in this case). She and her family were in my thoughts as I paid my respects at the vigil held for Sarah Everard by Clapham Common Bandstand this past weekend.
For all the media coverage of Sarah Everard’s murder, there remains a cavernous gap between rhetoric and action, demonstrated by the confrontations between mourners and the police at the vigil.
Every day, misogyny, racism and sexism contribute to a pandemic of violence against women and girls that shows no sign of abating. Ineffective and discriminatory policing, not to mention gender-biased court and sentencing processes, undermine our justice system. Positive and effective police responses are often a postcode lottery, or simply a matter of which officer a victim encounters. Meanwhile, COVID-19 and austerity measures have greatly reduced the types and sources of support available to women, particularly specialist refuges.
Our society has the power to protect women and girls. Moving forward, we must put those powers to better use. As part of this, the police and other statutory services must accept culpability when they make mistakes and commit to learning from these. This level of change requires investment, commitment and accountability – as well as a cohesive strategy, rather than the fragmented responses presently in place.
Violence against women and girls is a crisis. The conversation reinvigorated by Sarah Everard’s death must not fade out: instead, we must turn words into action. One thing we can all do, from today, is pledge to hold ourselves and others to account for discrimination and abusive behaviour whenever and wherever we see it. Enough is enough. This is a human-made problem: we all need to be part of the solution.
Aisha K. Gill is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton and was involved in advising both the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution from 2006 to 2010 in relation to the murder of Banaz Mahmod. Her work informed the MPS strategic Homicide Prevention Working Group on Honour Killings. In the last decade, she has been involved in training both the police and CPS specialist prosecutors on violence against women in majority and minority communities.
Professor Gill features in the Channel 5 documentary about convicted sex offender John Worboys entitled ‘Predator: Catching The Black Cab Rapist’.
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Image credit: Aisha K. Gill