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by Louise Wilson
16 March 2022
She was just walking home: was Sarah Everard's murder a turning point in tackling violence against women?

PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

She was just walking home: was Sarah Everard's murder a turning point in tackling violence against women?

Sarah Everard was murdered just over a year ago. On 3 March 2021, serving police officer Wayne Couzens kidnapped, raped and killed her.

It was a brutal crime that shocked the nation, sparking protests and vigils, and promises from those in power to do more to end the scourge of violence against women.

A year on, many women feel little has changed. Speaking at a vigil held outside the Scottish Parliament to mark the anniversary of Everard’s death, Feiya Hu – a young med student and co-founder of Racism Unmasked Edinburgh – summed up what it felt like: “We have lost our trust of the people, the organisations and structures that are the very ones which are meant to protect and support us,” she said.

“Throughout this year, I have seen very few changes. I don’t feel any safer now than I did last year – or the year before that, or the year before that… this is indicative of the lack of action to protect the safety of women and other minority groups on our streets.

"Unfortunately, far too many of us have been forced to live with these day-to-day inequalities, limiting the choices we can make or the things we can do.”

That loss of trust in institutions designed to protect is perhaps one of the biggest changes since last year. A YouGov poll from February 2021 found a majority of people (57 per cent) had confidence in the police to deal with crime and only 39 per cent did not. Fast-forward 12 months and only 43 per cent of people have confidence in the police, while 47 per cent said they had little or no confidence.

In the year since Sarah Everard’s murder, at least 125 women have been killed by men across the UK

The damage caused by Couzens was recognised by then Met chief Cressida Dick. On the day he was sentenced, she said: “His actions were a gross betrayal of everything policing stands for […] Police officers are here to protect people, to be trustworthy, courageous and compassionate. His every action is the exact opposite of that. As the judge said, he has eroded the confidence that the public are entitled to have in the police.”

But unable to regain trust, Dick was forced to resign last month. It followed a series of other revelations about Met officers, including an independent investigation revealing the extent of misogyny, discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment within the force.

North of the border, Police Scotland has not been immune. The YouGov polling revealed declining trust in the police force here too. This wasn’t helped by recent headlines about officers being investigated for sexual misconduct and evidence of a “sexist culture” found by an employment tribunal.

In response, Police Scotland has commissioned an independent review into internal culture, while it also plans to overhaul its strategy for dealing with violence against women more broadly.

A report by Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham confirmed: “Work has commenced on the development of a bespoke Police Scotland strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, to ensure women and girls are respected and live free from all forms of violence, abuse, exploitation and harassment.

“The strategy will recognise the impact of broader societal issues, the need for attitudinal and cultural change and seek to inspire and influence change through education, intervention, prevention and the robust pursuit of perpetrators.”

Graham also highlighted the success of the ‘That Guy’ campaign, a social media video launched in October encouraging men to think about their behaviour. It received millions of views and was roundly praised for acknowledging that “sexual violence starts long before you think it does”. It reflected the growing recognition that small behaviours, left unchallenged, can lead to violence.

The last year has also seen increased awareness of violence against women. A survey by Rosa, a women’s charity, found 89 per cent of organisations working in this area believed there had been a noticeable change over the last year. The outcry over Raith Rovers’ signing of footballer David Goodwillie, who was found by a judge in a civil case in 2017 to have raped a woman, demonstrated this.

But pockets of good news are small when compared with the size of the problem.

In the first half of 2021-22, Police Scotland recorded 7,519 sexual crimes. In 2020-21, there were 65,251 domestic abuse incidents (in four out of five cases, the victim was female). There were also 2,298 cases of rape or attempted rape, 1,045 stalking charges and ten women were killed.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland Working Group highlighted the prevalence of misogynistic behaviour more broadly. The results were chilling: 63.5 per cent of respondents have experience misogyny in the street and 59.9 per cent had experienced it online. That included whistling, name calling, and derogatory comments and actions.

That working group, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, was tasked by the Scottish Government to “consider how the Scottish criminal justice system deals with misogyny”. Last week, it recommended the creation of a Misogyny and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act.

This legislation should, the group said, make misogyny a statutory aggravator (meaning crimes motivated by hatred of women would be treated more seriously, akin to other hate crime legislation), as well as establish three new offences in Scots law: stirring up hatred against women and girls; threatening rape or sexual assault; and public harassment. “These are intended as a holistic response, not a menu of options,” the report added.

It also acknowledged that while legislation is “essential”, it was also “insufficient to address the insidious problem of misogyny in Scotland”. On top of the Act, it urged ministers to provide education and training within the criminal justice system; properly resource social work and other interventions; and campaign within public institutions, workplaces and educational settings.

The Scottish Government has said it will “carefully consider” the recommendations before formally responding.

In the meantime, ministers have made a series of non-legislative commitments to tackling violence against women and girls. That includes refreshing the delivery plan for the Equally Safe strategy, the first of which comes to an end this year, and the creation of the Equally Safe Fund which provides cash to organisations involved in prevention work, as well as frontline services such as local women’s aid groups and rape crisis centres.

Moreover, Shona Robison, the social justice secretary, has reiterated that ending violence against women requires more than just responding to the violence itself. She said: “The simple and unpalatable truth at the heart of the abuse and violence that women and girls face is that it continues to be underpinned by women’s inequality and the attitudes and structural barriers that perpetuate that inequality. Covid-19 has exacerbated and shone a spotlight on what was already there.

“That is why we, as a government, have relentlessly focused on ensuring that women and children get the help that they need, and we are clear that tackling domestic abuse and all forms of gender-based violence remains a key priority and that, without ending women’s inequality, we will never completely rid Scotland of violence against women and girls.”

In the year since Sarah Everard’s murder, at least 125 women have been killed by men across the UK. Here in Scotland, we mourn the deaths of Jacqueline Grant, Charmaine O’Donnell, Nicola Kirk, Lauren Wilson, Esther Brown, Catherine Stewart, Diana Nichols, Fawziyah Javed, Yvonne Barr, Amber Gibson and Mary Fell.

Everard’s death felt like a watershed moment. But with little having changed, the group of (mostly) women who gathered outside the Scottish Parliament at the start of this month wanted not just a memorial, but movement.

As organiser Rachel Chung said: “We’re not here looking to become martyrs, I don’t want to be a poster, I don’t want to front a news campaign. I don’t want to die – I want to wake up in the morning and know that I am treated like a person.” 

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