International Women’s Day in the UK was overshadowed this year by the devastating news that a young woman named Sarah Everard was kidnapped while walking home through the streets of London and murdered. After Wayne Couzens, a member of the Metropolitan police force, was charged with her kidnap and murder, the British public took to the streets to protest the widespread and institutionalised violence against women, writes Colin Stevens.
The Sarah Everard case, coming in the wake of #MeToo and the so-called shadow pandemic of domestic violence over the past year, has put gender-based violence in an international spotlight and renewed calls to strip perpetrators of these crimes of the impunity they have historically enjoyed.
Adding fuel to the flames
The revelation that a Metropolitan police officer may have been guilty of such an appalling crime may have “sent shockwaves and anger” through the police, but the general public in the UK is positively apoplectic. Initial advice from the force that women should ‘stay at home’ to stay safe went down like a lead balloon, and public anger swelled after the authorities brutally suppressed the attendees of a vigil in Sarah’s honour. The fact that the Met is facing a watchdog probe after an indecent exposure claim against Couzens was dismissed just days before the attack has done precious little to douse the fire.
Indeed, Sarah Everard’s tragic death has raised the public consciousness around violence against women, opening the floodgates for thousands of female voices sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and the recurrent fear they experience whilst walking at night. The multiplying anecdotes are corroborated by a YouGov poll showing that 97% of young women in the UK have been subjected to sexual harassment—a shocking statistic underlining how society has failed to address violence against women, a failure which has led to tragedies like the murder of Sarah Everard. In the wake of her death, policymakers are under immense pressure to buckle down on tackling the ubiquitous problem.
Westminster leads the charge
Thankfully, government figures have already made steps towards addressing the issue. During a Commons debate on March 11th for International Women’s Day, Labour MP Jess Phillips read out the names of the 118 women killed by men in 2020, reminding the country that an act of femicide is committed every three days in the UK. MP Harriet Harman elucidated: “The criminal justice system fails women and lets men off the hook. Whether it is rape or domestic homicide, women are judged and blamed… Let us hear no more false reassurances; let us have action.” Harman’s powerful rhetoric will now have to be translated into concrete measures such as an overhaul of the vetting process for the police, a new street harassment law, and an increased minimum sentence for rapists and stalkers.
These MPs’ mobilisation is certainly a positive sign, but it will take a sustained effort to win back trust. The emotionally charged uproar in England is the result of an inevitable spilling over after decades of trauma. In the UK rape convictions are at an all-time low, despite the rise in occurrences of the sexual crime. It’s the same story elsewhere, according to statistics published by the UN which show that less than 10% of the women who experience sexual or domestic violence appeal to the police. Ongoing protests in Australia, calling for justice for women who’ve suffered violence, make it clearer than ever that this is a global issue which can no longer be swept under the rug.
A global pattern of violence
Tragically, this is exactly what has been occurring for centuries, as societies around the world have failed to adequately support victims of gender-based violence and hold perpetrators to account. Labour MP Wayne David recently drew attention to one particularly egregious example which has yet to be addressed; the plight of Vietnam’s ‘Lai Dai Han’, a word which translates as ‘mixed blood’ but now denotes the children of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women –some as young as 12— raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War. Over 800 victims are still alive, and thousands of the children born in the aftermath live on the fringes of Vietnamese society, struggling to access education and other vital services.
To this day, Seoul refuses to recognise these war crimes, and has failed to apologise or launch an investigation into the assaults, despite repeated requests by the victims. But this injustice will remain in historical memory as long as the soldiers’ actions remain unreprimanded and the victims and their descendants without support. As governments such as South Korea’s equivocate on the correct responses to the ‘embarrassing’ actions of their predecessors, inaction and impunity will only exacerbate collective anger as the years pass and wounds are left to fester.
As long as highly developed democracies like South Korea are still refusing to acknowledge widespread abuse from 40 years ago, it’s no surprise that people around the world continue to carry out this kind of violence. While it is appalling that it took a tragedy such as Sarah Everard’s death to galvanise support, the time is ripe for a global stamping out of violence against women.
The fate of Sarah Everard has set the wheels in motion on a movement that has the potential to banish these dark chronicles from our front pages. Those in positions of power the world over must work together to effect changes in policy moving forwards, alongside an international effort to atone for past negligence. A clear condemnation of some of history’s worst acts of gender-based violence will resound with women around the world who are weary of inequity.