On a Wednesday evening in early March, 33-year-old Sarah Everard left a friend’s house in Clapham to walk home to Brixton. She didn’t come home. Her body was found the next week in a forest in Kent, and a serving police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.
A vigil planned in Sarah’s memory was declared unlawful by the police. When thousands of people turned up anyway, cops violently broke up the demonstration, arresting some of the organisers and throwing women to the ground.
Coming in the week of International Women’s Day, Sarah’s murder, the outpouring of public sympathy and the police repression which followed it are reminders not just of the harassment and violence which threaten women daily, but also of the fact that for oppressed groups, the police are not protectors but perpetrators of violence and aggression.
The news of Sarah’s murder led to a new #MeToo-style moment around the world, with hundreds of thousands of women speaking out on social media about their own experiences of feeling unsafe while walking home at night, alongside men asking what they can do to help women feel safer.
As the search for Sarah was ongoing, police issued a statement warning women in the area not to go out alone. Many women took to their platforms to denounce this as evidence of a culture of victim-blaming, arguing that instead of telling women to change their behaviour, or implementing new laws to ‘protect women’, we should instead focus on ending male violence against women.
But why do shocking rates of domestic violence, casual misogyny, and state-sanctioned gender inequality persist in a country where women are equal under the law? The solution cannot be simply education or awareness-raising, which merely inverts the problem, laying the blame for the cause – systemic social oppression – at the feet of the symptom – individual acts of violence of discrimination. The culprits are not only the men who do this to women, but the state and social system that does this to us all.
As shocking as the particulars of Sarah’s case are, her death is just one of hundreds of women murdered every day around the world. A 2017 UN survey found that of 87,000 women murdered in 2017, more than half – 137 per day – were killed by a partner or family member.
The crisis of domestic violence has been exponentially worsened by the covid-19 lockdown, which has trapped women in their homes with their abusers and fuelled unemployment and economic uncertainty, making it more difficult for women to leave abusive relationships. In the first lockdown, domestic abuse-related offences were up 7% on the previous year, and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw an 80% increase in calls. At the same time, the number of prosecutions and convictions dropped by more than half compared to the previous year.
The overwhelming majority of these women will not see justice in the courts. Women’s refuges and specialist services in the community are vital, yet they have seen funding drastically cut over the last decade. Despite the Tory government’s promises to “build back better” after the pandemic, local authorities which fund these services are seeing some of their worst budget cuts ever. An estimated 50% of specialist refuges have been forced to close or have been taken over in the last decade.
The same government which touts its support for women’s equality is directly responsible for systematically destroying the safety net which allows women to escape violence and abuse.
As the news broke of Sarah’s murder, London Mayor Sadiq Khan tried to “reassure” the public by saying that they would be seeing more police on the streets in the area where Sarah was kidnapped.
But the violent policing of the Clapham vigil is just the latest reminder that the police, the law, and the state have repeatedly failed to protect women and other oppressed minorities.
There have been small steps forward in strengthening legal protections in recent years. The domestic abuse bill, which extends the legal scope of the controlling or coercive behaviour offence, recognising that abuse can be emotional and economic, will soon become law. Two years ago, Sally Challen, who killed her partner after enduring 40 years of abuse at his hands, had her murder conviction overturned, paving the way for another similar case last year.
At the same time, rape convictions are at an all-time low. Only 1.4% of rape cases reported to the police result in a charge. The burden of proof lies on women to produce witnesses, and too often the investigation process itself is intrusive and traumatizing.
While murders of women committed by strangers are comparatively rare, the institutional sexism of police forces means that many men are free to commit multiple sexual offences, escalating in severity, and sometimes ending in murder.
Police have repeatedly showed their contempt for women who have been victims of deadly violence, like when two police officers last year took selfies with the bodies of two Black women found murdered in a park.
A single thread runs from misogynistic lad culture to street harassment to sexual assault to domestic violence and femicide. Sarah Everard’s murder is a wake-up call – a reminder that even in the most “advanced” countries, even when women do “all the right things” to protect themselves, violence against women is systemic, it is a fact of life.
Raising awareness, equal rights under the law, funding for services, as well as more specific demands like mandatory domestic violence reviews in cases of women’s murder or better data and reporting on crimes against women are important objectives which need to be fought for, especially in the current period of right-wing populism and rising reaction. But in this struggle, we cannot trust the police or state institutions, as Sarah Everard’s case shows.
Under capitalism, the patriarchal institution of the family, an inheritance from earlier class societies, has been repurposed for its own ends: the unpaid labour of women in the home, the systematically lower wages of women, and the ideology of gender stereotypes, all work to reinforce the idea that women are inferior, worth less, or somehow have a different ‘nature’ to men. It is in the private sphere of the family that sexist attitudes to women, starting with condescension and ending with rape and murder, are introduced and reproduced.
The male dominance of state institutions which minimise and neglect the needs of women are an expression of patriarchal and sexist attitudes transmitted through the nuclear family, which itself is maintained by the refusal to provide adequate childcare, full rights to divorce, access to contraception and abortion, equal pensions and so on.
When, like in the case of the Clapham vigil, the state metes out repression and shows its true misogynistic character, we argue that we must defend ourselves, organise ourselves, and build a fighting movement of working class women. We must reject the right of the police to investigate themselves through the toothless and corrupt IOPC. Instead we call for independent commissions of representatives of working class and women’s organisations to investigate oppressive behaviour and violence by police.
Already, the public backlash to policing of the vigil has forced Labour into publicly opposing the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill which proposes sweeping new repressive powers for policing protests.
This shows how concerted collective action can force concessions from the establishment faster than years of consultations and commissions. While continuing to fight for immediate demands, a working class women’s movement should set its sights higher – towards uprooting the social system which, in the name of profit, shackles women to unpaid domestic labour in the family and produces the sexist institutions which allow sexism and misogyny to proliferate at every level of society and in every part of the world.