The news this week that 28-year-old teacher Sabina Nessa was murdered while walking through a south London park on the way to meet her friend at the pub has saddened the nation. Police have since launched a murder inquiry, and arrested a man who was later released under further investigation.
While details are yet to be confirmed, a woman losing her life at the hands of male violence in a public space is a story we’ve come to hear a numbing number of times: Bibaa Henry, 46, and Nicole Smallman, 27, were two sisters who were celebrating a birthday in a Wembley park last year when they were stabbed to death by a man; Sarah Everard was the 33-year-old murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens on her way home in Clapham in March. They are just three recent victims. According to a report shared on Tuesday, 77 women have been confirmed murdered where a man is the principal suspect since Everard’s death.
These are far from isolated incidents. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. Over the past decade, more than nine out of 10 killers were men, and about 57 per cent of female victims were killed by someone they knew, most commonly a partner or ex-partner. These are figures we should be shocked by, and yet we’ve become numbed to them.
“Enough is enough” is the rallying cry that’s ricocheted throughout 2021, with campaigners spearheading the call for change to ensure real, impactful change on women’s safety against male violence.
The government was finally forced to respond with the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy (VAWG), set out by Priti Patel in July this year. The central demand of the Home Office’s multi-million pound campaign was to “focus on targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes”.
Among its plans, the strategy promised to appoint a top police officer in a new role to tackle violence against women and girls – a role that deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth has since stepped into. The two proposed VAWG Transport Champion positions to protect female passengers have also been fulfilled, and the £5 million “safety at night” fund – which included the widely criticised pilot to put undercover policemen in bars – has been launched, with funding applications closing earlier this month.
But what sort of impact is this new legislation having? The Independent spoke with key campaigners to ask: what is actually happening at this stage in the fight to end violence against women?
Women’s Aid: “Domestic abuse needs to be included in the VAWG strategy”
Isabelle Younane, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs at Women’s Aid, believes that, while the publication of the VAWG strategy was a “positive step” in terms of putting violence against girls and women on the political and public agenda, Women’s Aid is concerned about the decision to separate domestic abuse from the strategy.
“Disconnecting the two offers little reassurance that the government’s VAWG strategy will protect women ‘wherever they are’. Women’s experiences of violence and abuse are interconnected, and the strategy needs to respond to this,” Younane explains.
“This is particularly vital for Black and minoritised women, who disproportionately experience so-called ‘honour based’ abuse, forced marriage and FGM, which are covered in this VAWG strategy – but very often experience them in a domestic setting. The separation could push back progress in understanding how women experience these crimes, and prevent women from getting the help and specialist support they need. We urge the government to ensure that this is more clearly defined in the upcoming Domestic Abuse Strategy.
Younane also flags that the landmark Domestic Abuse Act, which was passed earlier this year with the accompanying Statutory Duty, was also a step forward for women’s safety – providing £125 million to local authorities for safe accommodation. “However,” she adds, “Women’s Aid estimates that £409 million is required to securely fund specialist women’s domestic abuse services in England, including ring-fenced funding for specialist services led by and for Black and minoritised women, Deaf and disabled women, and LGBT+ survivors. We have urged the government to deliver this.”
Mary Morgan: “The government is grossly missing the mark in addressing the roots”
“How many times have I heard “enough is enough”?” asks Mary Morgan, a scholar and expert in body politics focused on the elimination of violence against women. “Then, sure enough, more murders of women happen, despite promises from the UK government for change.”
Morgan believes that, while the VAWG strategy makes some promises – including better support services for minority communities, a public health campaign to focus on perpetrator behaviours, and an increase in perpetrators brought to justice – these feel like empty words.
“The government cannot merely come together every several months to slap together false solutions,” she says. “The elimination of violence against women and girls must be a core issue. A police watchdog’s report has said that tackling violence against women and girls should be as much of a priority as counterterrorism. And the best they can offer us are some more lights? Undercover police in bars? It’s laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. Popping up some more lights in parks and sending undercover police into bars grossly misses the mark in addressing the roots of issues. The government seems dedicated only to publishing more and more reports.”
Against Violence & Abuse: “Priority needs to be given to VAWG offences by the police”
“Despite decades of political and economic gains for women, we don’t feel any safer in public than we did in the days of the Yorkshire Ripper,” says Donna Covey, CEO of Against Violence & Abuse (AVA). “The issue is not about street lighting, or women policing our own movements, it is about a lack of political will to tackle men’s violence against women – whether in government, the police or the courts. Just look at how the prosecution rate for rape is now so low it is effectively decriminalised.”
Covey adds: “The recent inspectorate report calls for a radical refocus and shift in the priority given to VAWG offences by the police, and the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil, and the police response to the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman shows that the police have a long way to go in gaining the support of women exposed to men’s brutal and fatal violence.
“Black and minority women also live daily with the double burden of institutionalised racism and misogyny, and government and agencies still ignore their calls for justice.”
Women’s Equality Party: “The government must stop managing the issue, and start preventing it”
“I am horrified and devastated by Sabina’s murder, I can’t imagine how painful this must be for her family and everyone who knew and loved her – my heart goes out to them,” says Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP).
“Six months ago, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s tragic murder at the hands of a Met Police officer, women across the country came together, united in our fury and heartbreak, to demand that ending violence against women become a political and policing priority.
“We said enough is enough. And since then we have been given piecemeal measures and meaningless platitudes by the government, mayors, and police chiefs. They are all failing women by failing to address the root causes of this violence and falling short on their responsibility to fund women’s services.
Reid says the WEP wants to see violence against women and girls identified and treated as a national threat, in the same way that terrorism is. “The government and the authorities must urgently stop managing the issue and start preventing it,” she warns. “Every woman and girl should be able to take safety and freedom for granted.”
A vigil is being held for Sabine Nessa at Pegler Square, Kidbrooke, at 7pm on Friday. St James’ Church in Kidbrooke will also open its doors the same day to offer prayer to those affected by the tragic incident. Anyone unable to attend the vigil in person is encouraged to light a candle on their doorstep at the same time.
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