Why do women need to die before we listen?

As we reach the end of this week, I can safely say that the news flow has been overwhelming to say the least. On Monday, International Women’s Day, we started off with sparkly designs being posted everywhere to celebrate the “girl bosses” in our lives. We told them they could do anything they set their mind to. On Wednesday, not only did we find out that 97% of young British women have been sexually harassed but we also began talking about the case of Sarah Everard, a woman who went missing in London. By the end of the week, a collective conversation was explaining to our “girl bosses” what they should and shouldn’t do when out at night. As if they didn’t know already.

On the evening of 3 March, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, vanished without a trace while walking home from a friend’s house in south London. On Tuesday, a serving Metropolitan police officer was arrested and has now been charged with her kidnapping and murder. Human remains were found shortly after and then confirmed to be Everard’s.

As often happens with tragic stories of death becoming popular in the media, victims become martyrs, – especially if women. Despite Sarah’s family deserving privacy and time to mourn, the young woman has become a public symbol, the incarnation of gender inequality and violence against women. Her story is now leading a collective movement which has inspired thousands of women to share their testimonies on social media, reminding us of what happened in 2017-8 with #MeToo. From stories of keys tightly clenched in hand to testimonies of women being attacked, social media has been overflowing with accounts of everyday misogyny.

Although reminiscent of the #MeToo movement, the current outpouring of testimonies as well as hot takes on violence against women presents significant differences from its predecessor. No matter how well-intentioned, the debate around Everard’s death reeks of performativity and is likely to be easily swept under the carpet as the next scandal comes up. My main concern about the current discourse is that it’s heavily grounded in individualism. Most commentary has been focusing on single cases, patterns have been weakly drawn and the intersections of oppression mostly overlooked.

These issues have been evident since the police’s first response after Everard’s disappearance. In a televised statement, Metropolitan police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said: “I know Londoners will want to know that it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets.” Although I’m not questioning the veracity of the commissioner’s words, my first thought was: is the bar that low? Are women supposed to be grateful or reassured just because it’s not common for us to be abducted and murdered?

Dick’s “reassuring” statement focuses on the single instance, completely lacking the acknowledgement of the wider issue. What she said translates to “since kidnapping is rare, women should feel safe on our streets.” This approach is absolutely void in light of statistics of violence against women, which is known to be mostly perpetrated by men known by the women involved. What I would like to hear from authorities is not that I’m generally safe because I’m not likely to be kidnapped and murdered. Rather, let us know what steps you are taking to make sure women are actually safe.

The man currently charged for Everard’s murder is a police officer and data show women’s “damning lack of faith in the UK authorities”. According to a YouGov survey, 96% of respondents did not report incidents of sexual harassment, with 45% believing them reporting would not change anything. As explained in this Guardian editorial: “Rape prosecutions have dropped every year since 2016-17 – more than halving in that time – and are now at a record annual low. The number of domestic abuse prosecutions fell by almost a quarter in the last three months of 2019.”

It’s time the police takes accountability for its own bias and shortcomings in tackling violence against women, instead of putting the onus on women to keep themselves safe by staying at home.

While groups of men rushed to say #NotAllMen are abusers, women were once again the ones speaking up in solidarity.

At the same time, the media has been capitalising on women’s lived experience and trauma without really challenging institutions and systemic misogyny. We are so used to treating violence against women by looking at individual cases that, once Everard’s story broke out, the priority of several news outlets was to find the identity of the suspect. After all, it’s #notallmen so the problem must be this particular person who deviates from normality, right? This resulted in the alleged perpetrator’s name and picture being published, despite the precedent set by Sir Cliff Richard’s BBC privacy win that suspects should not be named before they are charged.

If we opened our eyes and considered a wider perspective, we would realise that Everard’s case is not only terribly tragic but also just the tip of the iceberg. New analysis by the World Health Organization shows that one in three women globally – around 736 million – have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, shadow minister Jess Phillips said that “since when Sarah first went missing, six women and a little girl have been reported as being killed at the hands of men.” How come, then, that we are only talking about Sarah? Here’s my guesses.

First of all, the suspect is a police officer which automatically sparks the interest of the media. Secondly, Sarah Everard represents what gender studies call a “good victim” in the hierarchy of victimhood. She was a white, middle-class woman who, as far as we know, respected all the unwritten rules society expects women to follow. Just think of how many news articles mentioned that she was killed “despite doing everything right”. What happens, however, when women do something wrong, at least according to the public?

What if the woman had been intoxicated? Or, more simply, she had been Black, trans, poor, a drug user, or a sex worker? Or maybe all of them? What if, instead of a police officer, the alleged perpetrator had been her partner? Best case scenario, we would have read maybe one news article about the case. End of story.

If you’re not convinced, look at the harrowing reality of how violence against women intersects with race, class, sexuality and more. Vicky Spratt writes on Refinery29: “A child is reported missing every two minutes in the UK. This abhorrent statistic conceals another fact: missing children are more likely to be girls, and those girls are disproportionately Black, Asian or from minority ethnic groups. Some of them are young women; they stay missing but we don’t hear much about it.” How many national discussions have stemmed from the death of marginalised womxn, despite it being known that sex workers, trans women, and women of colour are primary targets of gender violence?

To provoke real change, our collective mindset needs to shift to an intersectional approach. Gender violence needs to be analysed from a structural point of new, not just local. Take, for example, a recent report redacted by Reclaim Stirling. The survey revealed that 53 per cent of respondents – current and former students and staff at Stirling University – had experienced attacks including sexual harassment, assault or rape. The results have been reported by a couple newspapers but not one of them took this chance to open a wider investigation into how widespread sexual violence is in higher education or how it has been tackled.

Misogyny, much like racism, has a centuries-old history and even women can perpetuate it, it’s called internalised misogyny. Looking at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class means realising that violence against women is cultural, systemic, and endemic. Although I appreciate men being given short know-hows on how to help women feel safer, the issue must be addressed at its roots. It’s time we stop asking what individuals, be it men or women, can do and start questioning what the state and we as a community can do to make women be, not just feel, safer.

Until then, we will pay attention to only a few of the millions of women who die at the hands of men. Paraphrasing a largely praised front page published by the Scotsman, dead women count, but only after living women didn’t. 


How to get help: Scottish Women’s Aid can be reached 24/7 at the number 0800 027 1234, while you can contact Rape Crisis Scotland at 08088 01 03 02 any day from 6pm to midnight. 

Image credit: Ribbons at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park – Picture courtesy of Chelsea Rocks

Image credit top: @jackhillphoto for Times

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Comments (24)

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  1. Elizabeth Campbell says:

    Thank you for writing this. I wrote my own piece the other day because it was the only thing I felt like I could do. I needed someone, anyone, to hear my voice and to listen – though many won’t do the latter.

    Thank you for your voice. I hear you, I’m with you. I’m listening.

  2. J Galt says:

    You make good points regarding the differences in reaction to this event compared to other equally dreadful acts.

    A few weeks ago in the Ayrshire town where I live a woman and her adult daughter were brutally murdered in public spaces (one a hospital) by her ex partner who then killed himself.

    The reactions to these two atrocities has been, as far as I can see, very different. Apart from the involvement of a police officer I can see no justification for this.

    Have our media in Scotland become so enfeebled that we are totally dominated by London based news media, to the extent that events there are deemed to be “important”, as opposed to equally (to say the least) horrific events here, which are virtually ignored after an initial media flurry?

    1. Blair says:

      “Have our media in Scotland become so enfeebled that we are totally dominated by London based news media”

      All news sources seem to be dominated by the technology, ever since Bill Gates introduced everyone to Windows! Look at him now, he and a handful of Silicon Valley people are virtually running the world. A new world order is establishing itself with very little resistance. I happen to believe that Jesus Christ will intervene with Covid-19 2020 Vision and BREXIT 2021 PASSOVER. Who knows how the Millennium Bug Trumping #Covid_19 is going to change people.


    2. Liz Summerfield says:

      This was exactly my reaction to the prominence this crime was given in the media. If a heinous event happens anywhere outside London/Home Counties, there have to be multiple casualties (eg., Dunblane or Hungerford) before it makes the national news headlines. Although I appreciate that this is a significant example of the dangers women encounter, maybe the problem would be better addressed if EVERY instance of female murder (or the murder of children and other vulnerable individuals) could be given the same prominence.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Good article iris. The tories no longer care what happens outside of their high castles aside from what they can make out of privatising prison services and the like.

  4. Murray says:

    More knee jerk reaction to a old age problem . Westminster have never entered into any positive discussion with the groups involved , those in power like to conquer and control by division. If your fighting amongst yourselves your not seeing what the political elite are up to . The Tories see the fight between Women and Men as an opportunity of which they instigated to hide them from the Covid death and any enquiry,which is now kicked into the long grass . Yet again they’ve managed to use us all the pons in their chess game of power and Fear. To all women I say this “ please don’t allow the Westminster machine use you to cover up and evade the question and legal justice we need to find true change in society for all” .

    1. PW says:

      Your position that this article supposedly perpetuates a battle between men and women is entirely in your own head.

  5. James Mills says:

    J Galt , rightly , questions the differing reactions to two separate heinous incidents of women being murdered .

    Sadly , could the answer be that assaults on women , of varying degrees of brutality , are now so common the the media need a ”hook” to generate public response /interest ?

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Or it might be that Sarah was ‘privileged’ by being a Londoner, as J and Liz suggest.

  6. Paula Becker says:

    The article opens with an image of the disastrous Police handling of the Clapham Common vigil – but the article itself fails to mention anything about the policing and fails to condemn it. Why is this?
    Well it’s very simple – Bellacaledonia and its roster of writers have supported the lockdowns of the past year and have therefore supported the steady slide of the UK into an authoritarian Police state.
    Perhaps it’s time for some clarification from Bellacaledonia. Does this site support the continuation of lockdown and tiers (and the policing that goes with it) or does it want them to end? If it supports the ending of lockdown does it also support the full restoration of our rights and freedoms as they stood before March 2020?

    1. Have you not supported the lockdown Paula?

      1. Paula Becker says:

        No, I have been opposed to lockdown from March 2020.
        So I’ve politely answered your question – how about you now answer mine Mr Small. Where does Bellacaledonia stand on lockdowns? The Coronavirus Act is up for renewal at the end of this month. Does Bellacaledonia support the Tory government having another six months with this legislation in place? If you support the renewal of this legislation you are giving the Police free rein to police as they did at the Clapham Common vigil.

        1. Hello Ms Becker – yes I am VERY pro the British state and a big fan of the police. Ideally I want a Police State

          1. Paula Becker says:

            Oh come on – we all know that’s not true and we note that you still haven’t answered the question.
            We are almost at the 1 year anniversary of lockdowns and tiers. Surely this presents the perfect opportunity for you to clarify your position, either here in the comments section or, better still, at length in a column.

    2. Pub Bore says:

      Yep, I’ve been supporting it as a civic duty. I don’t want to be instrumental in spreading the virus, so I’ve been assiduous in following the hygiene rules recommended by our knowledge-community to help contain it.

      Unfortunately, not everyone has been so civically minded, and the behaviour of our more anti-social elements has had to be policed. If we were more civically minded as a society, there would be no need for lockdowns. But… there you go!

      1. Pub Bore says:

        Likewise, if we were more civically minded as a society, women could safely walk the streets at night and we’d all be presumed innocent until proven guilty of wrongdoing.

    3. PW says:

      Supporting some form of lockdown, based on the fact that we are currently experiencing a pandemic that has already killed millions of people, is NOT the same as supporting the police or their slow turn to authoritarianism. This is such a ridiculous comment to level against BC, and also a ridiculous misunderstanding of what the purpose of the lockdown is.

      The lockdown has been incredibly convenient for the police to develop a more authoritarian bent, and absolutely has been used directly as an excuse for such behaviour.

      This does NOT change the fact that a pandemic absolutely exists, has absolutely killed millions of people, and that capitalist countries that in recent years have developed a distrust of experts and obviously are trying hard to ‘keep the economy going’ and generate as much profit as possible for bosses, has made a lockdown necessary. If you think the pandemic has ‘ended’ or ‘never existed’ or was ‘always overblown’, or that the lockdown wasn’t primarily put in place to reduce the spread of the virus, this is a dangerous realm of conspiracy theory thinking.

      1. Paula Becker says:

        Hi PW – if you support lockdown then you support the Government’s Coronavirus Act 2020. You are saying that you feel it is correct that the Government have these powers and should wield them as necessary to fight the pandemic. You are also saying that you feel the Police should have the power to disperse gatherings of people so as not to spread the virus. It therefore follows that you should not be in the least surprised when the Police act on those powers.
        So do you support lockdown, the Coronavirus Act and Police powers to disperse gatherings or do you feel it’s time to call a halt to this?

        1. Pub Bore says:

          The Coronavirus Act 2020 is not responsible for the lockdown; provision for this was put in place by regulations made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.

          In any case, we’re governed by the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, which was passed unanimously by the Scottish parliament on 1st April 2020 and, to that extent, has a legitimate democratic mandate. The act enables the Scottish government to restrict or prohibit public gatherings, control or suspend public transport, order businesses such as shops and restaurants to close, temporarily detain people suspected of COVID-19 infection, suspend the operation of ports and airports, temporarily close educational institutions and childcare premises, enrol medical students and retired healthcare workers in the health services, relax regulations to ease the burden on healthcare services, and assume control of death management in particular local areas. It also enables the Scottish government to halt the eviction of tenants, protect emergency volunteers from becoming unemployed, provide special insurance cover for healthcare staff taking on additional responsibilities, reimburse to employers the cost of statutory sick pay for employees affected by COVID-19, and intervene to prevent supply chain disruptions to supermarkets. These emergency powers are time-limited and can only be extended by democratic consent.

          As a citizen, I don’t have a problem with either the lockdown or the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, and I consider it my civic duty as a citizen of Scotland and of the UK to support our collective decision to grant these powers to our government agencies, whether I privately agree with that decision or not. To oppose that decision would be anti-social, and you should be ashamed of yourself for so doing.

          That’s good old-fashioned republicanism for you.

          Vive la république!

          1. Paula Becker says:

            Thanks for that PB – but is it not the Coronavirus Act 2020 that gives the Government emergency powers to handle Coronavirus including the suspension of public gatherings in England like that at Clapham Common?
            Whichever/whatever. My point is that lockdown is not some polite agreement between well-meaning people to stand a bit further apart or wash our hands more often. It is legislation. It is the law. The Police arresting women at Clapham Common were simply enforcing that law. The Police were put in a very difficult position – it is not the Police who are bad it is the legislation. And to point this out is in no way anti-social or shameful – it is in fact my civic duty.

          2. Pub Bore says:

            It’s certainly your civic duty to participate in the democratic process by which we determine the law, which process includes debate. It’s also our civic duty to participate in the perpetual refinement of that process, towards the ideal of making the law an expression of our general will. It’s your selfish refusal to support our collective will, as settled in and through the assemblies of our representatives in the form of the Coronavirus Act and the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, that I find anti-social.

            The police action on Clapham Common was indeed an enforcement of the law; it was precisely the sort of enforcement that some were criticising Police Scotland for not enacting in Glasgow’s George Square the other weekend there.

            The Met’s enforcement of our collective will at Clapham Common might well have been cack-handed. That’s what our representatives need to determine in their subsequent evaluation of the action, so that the Met’s performance of its civic function can be improved if it turns out to have been deficient in this instance. But the law is the law, and we’ve a civic duty to support our laws and their enforcement where necessary.

  7. Pub Bore says:

    Here are the facts. On March 3, a 33-year-old British woman, Sarah Everard, disappeared in London. A week later, her remains were found in woodland in Kent and a police officer, Wayne Couzens, was charged with kidnapping and murdering her. The case against Wayne Couzens is yet to be tried; it’s not inappropriate to point out that, for the meantime at least, he remains innocent.

    Sarah’s murder made front-page news. It has also occasioned a popular outpouring of rage. On social media, many women have shared their experience of harassment, their fear, and their anger. Politicians from across the party spectrum and other celebrities have publicised their personal stories of abuse. There’s a near-universal demand that government does more to make our society safe for women.

    While Sarah’s murder captured the attention of the media in the UK and abroad, most likely because she enjoyed the privilege of being attractive, white, and middle-class, the public doesn’t hear about the vast majority of cases of violence against women who don’t enjoy such privilege.

    UN Women UK reports that 97% of women aged 18-24 say they’ve been harassed, while 80% of women of all ages say they’ve experienced harassment in public spaces.

    Violence against women has increased during the pandemic. A woman is murdered every other day in the UK, the majority being killed by an intimate partner or someone known to the victim. In the first month after the first lockdown was imposed in the UK, the number of murders related to domestic abuse tripled compared to the 2019 figures, while calls to domestic abuse services increased by 50%. UN Women reports that violent crime against women globally has intensified since March 2020.

    What these statistics reveal unequivocally is that our society is not a safe space for women.

    Sharing experiences, as well as objectively exposing the ubiquity of violence against women, are important. But the remedy to that violence doesn’t lie with more police on the street or with individual men changing their behaviour. Rather, it lies in transforming the economies that produce the oppressive ideologies that colonise us, both men and women. The problem isn’t a moral one that we can solve by undertaking to be better people; it’s a structural and systematic problem.
    International Women’s Day, the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March in the United States, Ni Una Menos in Argentina, the protests against femicide in Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa, and the demonstrations in India in response to gang rapes of lower-caste women… all of these initiatives have mobilised women against gender-based criminality and to liberate themselves from their colonisation by oppressive ideologies. They’ve helped to open the floodgates of repressed rage at the pervasiveness of violence against women and provide us with a kind of collective catharsis.

    But they also demonstrate that women – cis-women and trans-women, as well as gender non-conforming people – will not be cowed into silence and will not stop until they’ve reclaimed both our social spaces and their own lives.

    And it’s only through such solidarity and mobilisation, among and by women themselves, that the systemic violence they experience will be disrupted and the structural changes that are required for their liberation can be precipitated.

    We men should simply butt-out and not stand in their way.

  8. Squigglypen says:

    Excellent article. Here’s my take…
    How about we execute all rapists ..men who stalk women.. murderers of women girls and children…Clean up the gene pool as it were….’oh but there are decent men too’.. I hear you say..couldn’t agree more..and this way we’ll find them. My point being that you need laws in place that really deal with the monsters who make womens’ lives a living hell…
    How about extra cameras…jolly friendly policemen in nightclubs…I hear nutty parliament say….and what do you charge the perpetrators with if there are no laws in place…
    A few years ago a woman who suffered domestic violence had her eyes ripped out..by her husband…he wouldn’t let her ‘phone for an ambulance till her eyes were running down her cheeks..he got 7 years..what would you have done with him? She’s blind forever.
    My father.. a real man.thumped any guy who annoyed any women when he was present..I miss him. I hope they didn’t throw the mould away.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      You’re an advocate of male violence, then, squiggly?

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