The sudden disappearance of a 33-year-old woman in London and the arrest of a senior police officer on suspicion of her murder has ignited a national conversation about harassment and the abuse of women in the U.K.
Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, had last been seen on the evening of March 3, as she was captured on doorbell video footage walking home from a friend’s house on a main road near Clapham, south London at around 9.30 p.m. Her family said that it was uncharacteristic of her to not be in contact with her friends, and alarms were raised over the last week over her disappearance.
On Tuesday, a serving officer in London’s Metropolitan Police (Met) was arrested at a house in Kent on suspicion of murder following Everard’s disappearance. The Met said that the officer is in his 40s and part of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command. In a televised statement the following day, the head of the capital’s police force said that officers searching a woodland area near Ashford in Kent, the county bordering south of London, had found “what appears to be human remains” in the search for Everard. “Sarah’s disappearance in these awful and wicked circumstances is every family’s worst nightmare,” said Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
Everard’s case has dominated social media over recent days in the U.K., with many women coming forward to share their own experiences of public sexual harassment and assault, and the hashtags of her name and #ReclaimTheNight trending on Twitter. Wednesday’s news also came as U.N. Women U.K. released a new report showing 97% of women aged 18-24 in the U.K. said they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages in the country said they had experienced sexual harassment in public space.
Why Everard’s case is resonating with women across the country
Alerts and missing persons posters of Everard had been circulating widely on social media over the last week, and the new developments on Wednesday night sparked an outpouring of collective anger and sadness on Twitter. Women have been sharing testimonies of their own experiences of assault and harassment, the hypervigilant routines and protective behaviors they have to carry out for fear of being attacked, and calling for an end to victim-blaming and for men to change their behaviour.
“Like most women and people of marginalized genders in this country, I think this devastating, but I’m also not surprised,” says anti-sexual harassment campaigner Maya Tutton. “It’s about us thinking about this event as part of the pyramid of sexual violence. The conversation on Twitter really shows that.” Tutton started the Our Streets Now campaign with her sister Gemma two years ago when they were 20 and 14 years old respectively, borne out of conversations they had about their experiences of sexual harassment as teenagers.
The U.N. Women U.K. report, published on the same day as developments in the Everard case, indicates just how widespread and insidious this problem is, Tutton says. “It’s a reminder that this is an everyday reality for us. And that in moments like this, we can stop and reflect on our lives and on the way in which our liberties are being curtailed by this.”
Fury at the police
According to U.N. Women U.K.’s newly-released survey of more than 1,000 women, first reported by The Guardian, very few women feel they can speak up about this treatment. Some 96% of respondents did not report incidents of sexual harassment, with 45% saying it would not change anything. The results of reporting rape and sexual offenses bear out that belief. According to data from the Met and the Crown Prosecution Service, convictions of rape and sexual offenses in London dropped by almost a quarter between 2015 and 2020, and the time it takes to bring charges of rape almost tripled, despite reports of rape and sexual offenses increasing by 25% in the capital over the same time period.
The fact that the person arrested as part of ongoing investigations into Everard’s case is a serving police officer has also sparked fury, further eroding trust in the authorities to handle cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault with care and accountability. According to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, there were 109 allegations of sexual assault in police complaints in England and Wales over the 2019/2020 period. Of the allegations that led to an investigation, 82% did not result in “special requirements,” meaning that the investigation concluded that the person involved in the complaint did not commit a criminal offense nor were they subject to disciplinary proceedings.
The Women’s Equality Party’s leader, Mandu Reid, said Thursday that the Met should not oversee the case, given that one of its own officers is involved. Reid called for the investigation to be led by a neighboring police force, saying “the evidence is clear that police cannot be trusted to investigate their own when it comes to allegations of violence against women and girls.”
Ties with racism, homophobia and transphobia
Many are also reflecting on the higher rates of harassment and violence against women of color, transgender women and people of marginalized genders. In June last year, two serving Metropolitan police officers were arrested after allegations that they took “non-official and inappropriate photographs” of the bodies of two murdered sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, and shared the images on a private WhatsApp group. Six more officers were later investigated for alleged misconduct in connection to the photographs. The mother of the two women, who were Black, told the BBC in an interview that the photographs had “taken her grief to another place” and that the case showed there was still institutionalized racism within the Met. “If ever we needed an example of how toxic it has become, those police officers felt so safe, so untouchable, that they felt they could take photographs of dead Black girls and send them on,” Mina Smallman said.
Many have highlighted on social media the intersecting threats that different groups of women and gender diverse people face. A 2019 report from the Mayor of London’s Office for Police and Crime indicated that Black female victims of sexual offences were overrepresented in reports from the capital, and a 2020 report from LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop showed nearly one in five trans people surveyed had experienced or been threatened with sexual assault.
“I think it’s really important for us to center in this conversation that there’s not one experience of sexual violence,” says Tutton. “On a day like today, we will predominantly center the white woman voice and the white woman’s perspective. And I think it’s really important to remember that violence against women and girls, is also tied in with racism and homophobia and transphobia.”
What campaigners want next
Vigils will be held around the country both in-person and online over the coming days to remember Everard, with a major one scheduled at Clapham Common on Saturday evening, near to the location where she was last seen. “We believe that streets should be safe for women, regardless of what you wear, where you live or what time of day or night it is,” the event’s organizers wrote on Facebook. “It’s wrong that the response to violence against women requires women to behave differently.” In comments on social media, women have also been offering to help each other walk together to the event in groups to keep each other safe.
For campaigner Tutton, Everard’s story highlights the need for both legislative and cultural change. In partnership with charity Plan U.K., Our Streets Now is calling for public street harassment to be made a criminal offense, as well as for cultural change and education in schools, universities and colleges.
“It’s absolutely crucial that we use this moment, and that we think of this moment, as being enough is enough, and as being the time in which we think, what can I do as an individual, but also, what can we do collectively to change this?” Tutton says. “Because until we have collective structural change, this violence will continue.”