In the UK, a woman is killed by a man every three days. These crimes are on the rise, with the recent murders of Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa touching a national nerve. But why do these crimes keep happening? We need to talk about how – and why – the criminal justice system is failing to keep women safe.
Gendered violence claims over 200 lives every year and accounts for a quarter of all violent crimes. Different forms of violence against women and girls are more or less prevalent in different communities, but all are underpinned by the same sexist norms, traditions, stereotypes and patriarchal values. In the case of violence against Black and racially minoritised women, the idea that women embody their family and community’s ‘honour’ may be a further complicating factor.
By mobilising public opinion and generating awareness of the issue, specialist ‘by and for’ organisations (i.e. organisations for Black and racially minoritised victims run by people from the same community) have helped to expose the myth that violence against women and girls is a private affair. This has helped women and their families reach out to support services. It has also increased political commitment to providing all victims with fair treatment from the criminal justice system. However, support services are woefully underfunded. Similarly, the criminal justice system has yet to live up to its good intentions.
In the wake of high-profile cases, such as the murder of Sarah Everard, the government and the police have come under scrutiny for the ways in which they perpetuate institutionalised inequalities. Violence against women cannot be separated from community and public attitudes towards women. It also intersects with poverty (the majority of the poorest in the world being female) and a variety of human rights issues, including in relation to the global economy, climate change and COVID-19.
Greater accountability is needed by the criminal justice system to ensure that policing responses to all forms of violence against women translate into justice for all. However, the government looks set to adopt a ‘band-aid approach’ instead.
A public inquiry has been called for in relation to police failings in the Everard case. Meanwhile new police leads on violence against women and girls, and stronger sentences for serial offenders, are currently going through parliament. However, the government is also supporting greater police powers (in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill) that may have unintended consequences for victims of gendered violence. Previous increases in police powers to combat violence against women have not prevented violence; instead, they have increased the monitoring and surveillance of Black and racially minoritised communities.
My research has shown that police interventions often fail to protect women from these communities. In some cases this is because victims do not want criminal justice interventions: some prefer to find alternative strategies to stop the violence they are being subjected to. However, at present, the police and social services do not support such strategies – or only rarely, and usually inadequately. This is a squandered opportunity to address violence against women in ways that would actually help victims and prevent future abuses.
In seeking to tackle all forms of violence against women, there must be genuine willingness on the part of government bodies to partner with, and listen to, specialist ‘by and for’ services to ensure that the interests of racially minoritised victims are fairly represented in policies, support-service approaches and preventive efforts.
A key question to consider is ‘Who are the key stakeholders institutions are trying to serve when they talk about community safety?’ Those most in need of safety are often also the most disenfranchised and dispossessed members of society. Recognition of this reality must be part of the debate on how to ensure community safety in relation to violence against women. Government committees working against such violence must integrate intersectionality into their analyses if they are to address the multiple discriminations facing women in racially, religiously, ethnically and economically marginalised communities.
Protecting the vulnerable requires giving greater voice to those who lack power, including those who are part of Black and racially minoritised communities and those who challenge violence perpetrated by the state. Only then will justice be served for all.
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 Service in relation to the murder of Black and racially minoritised women in the UK for over 20 years. In the last decade, she has been specifically involved in training both the police and Crown Prosecution Service’s specialist prosecutors on violence against women in majority and minority communities.
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Image credit: Tim Dennell