Sarah Everard: Violence against women is an ‘epidemic’ in Scotland, campaigners warn

Posted: 6th October 2021

It is a horrifying case that has shone a light on the worst fears of women around the country – losing the basic human right of feeling safe on the UK’s streets.

Now the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s killer, who will spend the rest of his life in prison, has reignited warnings that violence and harassment against women remains an epidemic in Scotland.

Anti-sexist organisation Engender said tackling abuse of women needed to begin at grassroots level – such as ‘calling out’ casual sexism in the workplace.

Rape Crisis Scotland warned violence “is not inevitable” and could be halted by a major shift in culture.

The warning comes as Wayne Couzens became the first police officer to be handed a whole life sentence for the murder of Ms Everard, whom he abducted as she was walking home in London in March.

Ahead of sentencing Couzens, the judge described the circumstances of the case as “grotesque”.

The sentencing of Couzens came as another man, Koci Selamaj, appeared in court on Thursday accused of the “predatory” murder of London primary school teacher Sabina Nessa.

Alys Mumford, spokeswoman for Engender, which is part-funded by the Scottish Government, said almost all women had experienced some form of harassment or violence in public.

She warned Couzens’ role as a police officer could deter women further from taking cases of harassment to the authorities.

Sexual violence and harassment is hugely under-reported in Scotland.

Data from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 2019-20 showed only 22 per cent of victims and survivors of rape and 12 per cent of women who were victim-survivors of other types of sexual offence reported it to the police.

Ms Mumford said: “Violence against women is an epidemic in Scotland and has been for a long time. It is absolutely as much of a problem in Scotland as elsewhere.

“Harassment and violence against women in a public places ranges from things like cat calling to a murder like Sarah’s. More needs to be done to recognise the scale of the problem.

“It is a consequence of massive inequality and we need to be tackling this at all levels. This includes individuals calling out this behaviour when they see it, such as if you have a colleague or friend with a nickname that suggests harassment against women, call them out.”

She added: “The police, local councils and so on, need training on violence against women and organisations like the police need to take a really long, hard look at themselves and how they understand women.

“[This case] will have an impact on some people on reporting harassment. Some people already harbour a distrustful view of the police.”

Dame Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, admitted on Thursday that a “precious bond of trust has been damaged” after Couzens used his authority as a police officer to arrest Ms Everard and subsequently abduct her.

Referencing an investigation by the Metropolitan Police into two previous separate alleged incidents of indecent exposure which were not fully investigated, Ms Mumford said: “We all know situations like this, where a man has been given chance after chance and this is the result.

“We need to take action when it happens. It is too often seen as one of these things that we have to deal with.”

A recent report found around three in five women in Scotland have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the past, with over two thirds claiming they don’t feel safe walking alone in Scotland’s streets after dark. The results of the ScotPulse survey found two in five of the women who had been harassed or assaulted said it had happened on the street, while 35 per cent said the incidents had occurred in the workplace.

Separate research carried out by women’s magazine Grazia found 48 percent of women in the UK do not feel safe, despite 77 per cent of both men and women agreeing Ms Everard’s death was a defining moment in terms of the conversation around women and safety.

However, 37 per cent of the men surveyed said since the tragedy, they had thought about or researched ways to make women feel safer on the streets.

Writing in today’s The Scotsman, Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland said the nation had “a culture that trivialises and condones rape and sexual violence”.

She said: “It’s in the attitudes that exist that go unchallenged – the jokes about rape that are laughed off and ignored.

“Of course we don’t expect that the teller of that joke will go on to rape someone, but what if we did take a pause and reflect on what message it sends that no-one interrupts to say ‘that’s pretty messed up’.

“Do we consider the green light this may give some men to continue a path that could well end in violence?”

She added: “This violence that is so rife is not inevitable and it is not the responsibility of women to prevent it. It is those men who choose to perpetrate such harm and violence whose actions and behaviour requires scrutiny and action. It is the culture that we all live in and uphold that has to change.”

SNP MP Hannah Bardell, who has campaigned to support victims of domestic violence, said: “At its core, it’s systematic and societal and we have to change the narrative away from what women should be doing to protect themselves.

“It all swims in the same pond as locker room chat. There’s no doubt that the fact that it’s systematic in society is one part of it, but the other part is challenging things on and offline.

“A lot of men don’t want to face up to the scale of it. They find it difficult to comprehend. But there are genuinely a lot of men out there who want to understand and want to help.

“The uniqueness of the Sarah Everard case, when someone is in a position of trust and responsibility and abuses that, is shocking.

“Sex and relationship education is absolutely crucial in this, teaching children and young people what a healthy relationship looks like and giving boys and girls the tools to challenge each other.”

Rachel Adamson, co-director of charity Zero Tolerance, said at least seven women in Scotland, and 117 in the UK, were killed by men in 2019.

She said: “Men abuse, attack and kill women because society lets them. We excuse the behaviour of men, and distance extreme violence from everyday misogyny by presenting them as isolated incidents perpetrated by ‘monsters’.

“But all forms of violence against women and girls – such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual harassment – are a symptom of an unequal society; one where men hold the power, women are valued less and most of us continue to hold entrenched harmful beliefs about women. The only way to prevent violence against women is to end gender inequality for good.”

The Scottish Government’s Delivering Equally Safe Fund, launched in August, includes more than £28 million for frontline services which provide direct support to women and girls, prioritising services that maximise their safety and wellbeing.

The Scottish Government said: “Violence against women is abhorrent and totally unacceptable, and our Equally Safe Strategy sets out our ambition to eradicate it in all its forms.

“Our focus is on preventing such abuse, building on the £23m we have invested in violence prevention since 2008. We are working to ensure all young people have access to evidence-based prevention education on consent and healthy relationships, and are modernising the criminal law that holds perpetrators accountable.

“We have laws in place to tackle sexual violence, stalking, threatening or abusive behaviour, non-consensual sharing of images and domestic abuse.”

Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Taylor of Police Scotland said: “The thoughts of everyone at Police Scotland are with the family and friends of Sarah Everard. Today’s sentencing will not ease the pain they have suffered since her horrific murder.

“Women should never be scared or reluctant to report any crime to us and can be assured that we will listen, support and carry out a robust and impartial investigation. Our officers work with absolute professionalism to protect the vulnerable and keep people safe in line with our core values of integrity, fairness and respect and a commitment to upholding human rights.”

She added: “The appalling circumstances of Sarah Everard’s death have deeply affected people and many are now rightly concerned about verifying an officer’s identity.

“Police officers always carry photographic identification and will be happy to provide reassurance about who they are and their reason for speaking with someone.”

Source: The Scotsman, September 2021

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