A year after Sarah Everard’s murder, we’re talking directly to men. But it’s not enough


Show caption Vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, London, 13 March 2021. ‘The government has refused to make misogyny a hate crime.’ Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Opinion A year after Sarah Everard’s murder, we’re talking directly to men. But it’s not enough Sandra Laville The government’s multimillion-pound ad campaign seems to tiptoe around the violence, harassment and abuse women face Thu 3 Mar 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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In the run-up to the grim one-year anniversary today of the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan police officer, the government has released an advertising campaign to challenge the perpetrators of violence against women.

The shift in focus to men who attack women is welcome. In the aftermath of Sarah’s killing, women and girls were told to change their behaviour to keep themselves safe – from hailing down a bus to walking more assertively.

It has taken years for this change in perspective, years in which female victims have not been listened to, or have been blamed for the violence perpetuated against them; the female victims, for instance, of the serial rapist John Worboys, who were dismissed and reportedly laughed at by Met officers, a failure which meant he went on to attack more women.

So, when finally the authorities turn their gaze away from the girls and women who are the victims to the boys and men who carry out the violence, harassment and abuse, are we wrong to have expected the change in policy to be a little more direct?

Instead, Enough, a multimillion-pound campaign on radio, social media, TV and billboards, seems to tiptoe around the issue. Three posters contain images of young men attempting to challenge toxic behaviour among their peers, from street harassment to revenge porn and cyber stalking – but only just. The rest feature concerned couples or lone women gently speaking out if they see a girl touched up in a bar or a neighbour having a row with her partner.

Given the epidemic proportions of violence against women and girls, this campaign could, and should, have been harder hitting. In the months since Sarah was kidnapped, raped and murdered, another 125 women and girls have been killed at the hands of male perpetrators, according to the Femicide Census, collated by Karen Ingala Smith. These include Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher who was walking through a park to meet a friend in Kidbrooke, south London, and other less well-known cases of female victims of domestic violence who were killed by men they knew.

The behaviour of the Met during the last year has done little to close the gulf in trust between the police force and women in particular; from the handling of a peaceful vigil for Sarah on Clapham Common to revelations about the behaviour of officers at the murder scene of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and the exposure of a culture of unchecked and often violent misogyny within the force – which ultimately led to the early departure of the commissioner Cressida Dick.

In response to the outcry over the killing of Sarah, there was a flurry of announcements by the government and the Met promising to tackle the issue of violence against women and girls. Boris Johnson said: “We must do everything to ensure our streets are safe”, as a £23.5m fund for Safer Streets was created specifically to target women’s safety with money for street lighting and security.

But the government has refused to make misogyny a hate crime – a move that would categorise it alongside race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and transgender identification as a motivation for offences. Instead Priti Patel is to make violence against women a priority crime for police forces, alongside the likes of terrorism. It’s astonishing that it has not been deemed that already.

But no amount of announcements, street lights or advertising campaigns will work unless trust is restored and the police do their job to pursue and catch the perpetrators of the violence and abuse, with the courts then bringing offenders to justice in a timely way.

The disgracefully low prosecution and conviction rates for rape offences have worsened in the 12 months since Sarah’s death. That fact does not persuade women that their safety is a priority.

Last year had the lowest number of rape convictions on record, according to the End Violence Against Women Coalition. The Office for National Statistics shows that there were 63,136 reported rape offences in the year to September 2021, while only 1.3% resulted in a suspect being charged.

In what was an unprecedented response to a call for evidence from the home secretary, 180,000 women and girls described the sexual harassment, violence and abuse they had suffered in their lives. Many said it was the presence of myths and stereotypes related to violence against women and girls that had dissuaded them and other victims of rape to come forward to the police.

Of victims who had experienced rape since the age of 16, only 16% reported it to the police, with many women citing an increase in requests for personal digital information from their phones – targeting the victim not the perpetrator again – as a reason for their reluctance to come forward.

As the Home Office ad campaign starts to be seen across the country, there is another gaping hole in the approach – the need to tackle the underlying causes of violence against women and girls through education, by challenging the normalisation of pornography, by intervening early to address the attitudes of boys and young men and by pursuing a zero-tolerance approach in schools to misogyny. One year after Sarah Everard’s death, there is a need for more urgency if anything is to change.

Sandra Laville is a Guardian correspondent

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