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National spotlight on men’s violence against women and girls

Since hearing the devastating news of the murder of Sarah Everard, we have seen an outpouring of rage, grief and loss and a heightened national focus on men’s use of violence against women and girls – in ways we haven’t always seen before.

So much of this focus has been on women’s fear and safety, particularly in public spaces. That women and girls feel unsafe when walking down the street, or getting on public transport, is not new information. What has been unique these past weeks is the way men’s use of all kinds of violence against women and girls has started to be widely named as the reason women and girls feel and often are unsafe.

The fatal violence perpetrated against Sarah Everard has released a wave of anger from thousands of women that we live in a society where so many types of violence against us are endemic and normalised across all areas of our lives. This includes in public spaces and also online, at work, in schools, colleges and universities, in care, sporting, political and religious institutions, in wars and in conflict, in families, friendships and intimate relationships and, disproportionately, at home.

This lived reality and threat of violence and abuse, largely from men we know and who are close to us, underpins women and girls’ real and valid fears about how safe we are in the world. The high profile murder of Sarah, along with at least 34 other women so far this year who were killed by men, or where a man is the principal suspect, is a stark reminder that we aren’t. We also know that the issue is not solely about safety – it’s also about women and girls’ rights and freedom.

The constant and daily ‘safety work’ that women and girls do in response to the global issue of men’s use of harassment, violence and abuse, means that our freedom and rights are restricted and violated every day. The victim-blaming messages we are surrounded by from a very young age and which get perpetuated in our society makes our space for choice, freedom, and access to justice even smaller.

The violence and abuse directed at women and girls and the responses we receive from institutions and the media are also rooted in multiple forms of inequality, prejudice, and oppression. Every woman and girl deserves to be free and safe and have access to support, protection and justice for the violence enacted against us. We know this is not the case and is clear by the way misogyny, racism and anti-blackness intersected to shape the starkly different responses we saw to the murders last year of Blessing Olesegun and Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, which included police officers taking pictures with their bodies.

That the suspect in Sarah’s murder is a police officer has also highlighted serious concerns about individual officers and institutional police responses to violence against women and girls, as well as concerns about pervasive cultures of misogyny and alleged abuses of power that underpin the very institutions that would claim to ‘protect’ some of us.

We know that sexual violence is not about what women wear, where we walk, or what we do. It is about power and control. That abusive men will place themselves in positions of power that offer them protection and access to control – judges, teachers, sports coaches, religious leaders, doctors and the police, is well known to survivors and the specialist organisations that provide support.

The staggering failings of the wider criminal justice system to address these issues asks some deeply confronting questions about what kind of radical change is really needed, questions the police were even asking themselves before Sarah was murdered: “if you can’t do it for rape, where the effect is life-changing, you could [ask]: what is the criminal justice system for?”. Sometimes the hardest conversations are the ones we need to have the most.

None of this is new and, as we move into our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re reminded that violence against women and girls is a global pandemic that has long preceded this.

We need long-term social and systematic change both within and outside of the criminal justice system that amongst others focusses on preventative education and bystander intervention in schools and communities, along with national public health campaigns aimed at challenging abusive behaviour and the attitudes which uphold violence and abuse.

We also need men and boys to listen to women and girls, reflect on their attitudes and behaviour and take positive steps to creating a world that is both safe and free for all of us.    

Our hearts today and everyday are with all women and girls affected by men’s violence and abuse. As the national spotlight starts to dim, please know that we will be here pushing for change, centring survivors’ voices and providing specialist, independent and confidential support whenever someone wants and feels able to reach out.

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