Content warning: in this article, there is mention of sexual violence
For women across the UK, the last two weeks have been harrowing.
Following the senseless and tragic murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who went missing in Clapham, South London on 3rd March, the whole country has been in mourning – for Everard, for the Black women, women of colour and members of marginalised communities who are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence (and whose cases rarely get national news coverage), and for the fact it took the death of one of our own to bring this endemic issue into sharper focus.
In response, the government has promised to increase undercover police presence, namely in clubs and bars, in an effort to protect women against sexual assault and harassment. But this has thrown into question how we can trust the police to keep us safe, when as of March 2020, just 1.4 per cent of rape cases reported to them resulted in a suspect being charged – and so often, they are perpetrators too.
After Neve, 19, experienced a distressing instance of sexual harassment in North London last summer, she reported it to police without expecting much. Nonetheless, she was disappointed to see how they handled the case. “I think a show like I May Destroy You, for example, brilliantly portrays how shit the police are in these situations,” she says. “We had to remind them to write information down and one of the first things they said was, ‘What’s the world come to, hey?’”
Although Neve will continue to report instances of sexual assault later in her life – a grim possibility she has resigned herself to – many of her friends haven’t, and don’t want to. She reflects on using social media as a means to educate men about the pervasive nature of harassment in our day to day lives: “At the end of the day, some guy who harasses you on the street isn’t going to see the post you make about it on Instagram, but your own male friends will.
“I’d like for them to check whether we’re okay, to have these difficult conversations with us about things they’ve learned, to have conversations with their mums and sisters, to call out abuse when they see it.” Ultimately, though, Neve feels cautiously hopeful that people are beginning to understand the severity of the safety crisis women face daily.
“It’ll be a slow process, but I think that once our generation has children, the world will take a turn for the better,” she continues. “[For now] I don’t see what the police can do to help me feel safer – everyone was so shocked by their violence at Sarah Everard’s vigil, but the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests [last summer] was even more brutal. These protests are always peaceful until the police turn up. It’s been going on for a long time.”
Now, our right to protest these injustices are at threat, too, as Home Secretary Priti Patel works tirelessly to pass a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill which places stifling restrictions on our right to take to the streets. As it stands, the system is not fit for purpose, and there is a fundamental lack of trust in services that are currently in place to respond to issues of gender-based violence and systemic racism.
What if it doesn’t have to be this way? How can we use education as a preventative tool and turn this moment of country-wide reckoning to our advantage, in order to rally communities and tackle societal issues so intrinsic to the fabric of our society? It will take a village to undo all the harm, but many organisations are already hard at work.
Below, we spoke to five groups who are committed to tackling gender-based violence: about what we can do to end it in the long run, and some of the ways we can uplift each other in doing so.
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A feminist group that seeks to enact change within communities through mutual aid and transformative justice
What do you make of misogyny being classed as a hate crime in the UK from this Autumn?
We know from speaking with survivors and being survivors ourselves that more laws don’t keep us safe for so many reasons. In the first instance, laws don’t actually result in someone going to prison – only 1.4% per cent of sexual violence offences are actually prosecuted. We know that more laws also leads to an increase in survivors being arrested, which happens in England and Wales, but also far wider. There’s evidence in the US that the impact of this is also disproportionately felt by Black and minority survivors, poor survivors and sex working survivors. We also know that the carceral system actually breeds violence and harm. So when we’re speaking about things like misogyny as a hate crime – whenever we give the state more power to adjudicate and police us, the more violence we and others in our communities experience. Hate crime laws are reductive. They might offer a recognition of pain, but it’s a false promise. It’s nothing more than symbolic and doesn’t mean anything.
Where do we go from here?
We continue to organise. There’s so much for us to be challenging right now, and we will continue to move. We will fight the Domestic Violence and Abuse bill, which does nothing to truly keep survivors, women and gender nonconforming people safe. We will continue to challenge transphobia, which is rampant across the world that we live in and within domestic violence services that offer support to only a small number of survivors. We will continue to push for a world where we know how to respond to harm and we know how to support people who experience harm. Rosa, Representative
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Established in 2003, Tender is a charity which operates throughout England to provide preventative training and workshops on abuse and sexual harassment in schools, universities and workplaces, often via drama classes
How effective are preventative methods in tackling gender-based violence?
We recognise that it’s challenging to prove that you’ve prevented something from happening, but if you’ve increased someone’s knowledge of what domestic abuse is or the components of an unhealthy relationship, that’s equipping people with knowledge of what to look out for while also considering their own behaviour. That’s something we’ve really seen as we increase the work we do with adults – that people in workplaces are really thinking about their own actions and how these can affect others.
How can education help to put an end to it in the long run?
It’s all about increasing the level of the conversation. Education gives you the tools to be able to consider relationships in a certain context, but you can only do so much in schools to instil those messages. You need to practice these sensitive conversations around consent and feel confident in calling out red herrings, or to recognise when someone blames victims. Have those conversations confidently, and don’t let the oxygen get sucked out of them by saying things like ‘“not all men’”. We know that. Let’s focus on change and stop turning it into some kind of argument that doesn’t need to be happening. Susie McDonald, Chief Executive
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An organisation working to create safe and empowering public spaces with and for women
We are looking at a situation where younger women are constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked, and older women are reporting serious concerns about personal safety if they ever leave the house in the dark. This is a human rights crisis. It’s just not enough for us to keep saying “this is too difficult a problem for us to solve”. It needs addressing now.
Data shows us that women have lost faith in the system. At the start of our community workshops, we ask how people feel about women’s safety in public spaces, and the responses are unfailingly negative: frightened, tired, fed up, angry. By the end, as participants have thought about building solutions for safer public spaces together, the message we get back is always one of hope. People saying they now feel determined, positive, empowered; they believe we can do it together.
We believe that we can change the reality for women and girls. We know it’s possible, which is why we work to make it a reality every day. But we can only make this change happen with everyone on board – the government, local authorities, emergency services, universities and workplaces, nightclub chains, educators… Solving this will take the whole community, because it’s an issue that affects the whole community. Claire Barnett, Executive Director
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An Instagram account founded in June 2020 that seeks to empower sexual abuse survivors by publishing their testimonies – so victims know they’re not alone and that there’s no shame in what happened to them
What’s the main thing you’ve learned since establishing the platform?
I’ve learned about the importance of inclusivity in this dialogue. The only way we can really change things and transform attitudes is by getting everyone on board and active within this conversation. We all need to take responsibility for a culture that is so widespread, so endemic, and so deeply entrenched in the fabric of society.
What are some measures we can take in our day to day lives to help put an end to gender-based violence?
Practise empathy. Try to understand other people’s experiences. Do your best to open up these conversations with the people in your life and listen. Adopt a no-tolerance policy, call it out when you see it, and stop being friends with abusers who don’t change their behaviour. Soma Sara, Founder
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An app launched in 2015 as an extension of the Hollie Gazzard Trust, with the aim of helping those suffering from domestic abuse and stalking feel safe following Hollie’s tragic murder in 2014
Why did launching Hollie Guard feel like the logical next step for the charity?
From the moment we set up the charity our aim was to support others who are suffering in the same way as Hollie and provide the support that she sadly did not have. Since it launched, the app has now turned into an all-round personal safety app – which can be used by anyone, whether travelling alone, working alone and of course to support survivors of domestic abuse feel safer. In 2020 Hollie Guard Extra was launched to offer further support via a 24/7 monitored call centre, who can escalate relevant alerts where necessary.
What can we do in our day-to-day lives to help put an end to gender-based violence?
Gender based violence is a societal issue, much like racism. On a day-to-day basis we would encourage intervention and taking responsibility for our own actions. We have been involved in the Active Bystander Intervention Programme, which highlights how acts of subtle sexism and derogatory behaviour can be “called out” and being the one to challenge this type of discrimination safely.
Do you think tech-based solutions such as Hollie Guard can meaningfully contribute to limiting violence against women in the long run?
We would love for Hollie Guard to have zero downloads one day. Whilst we believe that the app is a deterrent that offers peace of mind, education is key to preventing violence against women in the long run. Educating young people on what a healthy relationship is, how to treat each other and understand how words and actions can have devastating consequences will help limit needless violence. Nick Gazzard, Founder of the Hollie Gazzard Trust