The murder of Sarah Everard has raised new questions about an age-old stain on society – violence against women and girls. The tragedy of Sarah’s death sent shockwaves through the appalled nation, and just as unsettling was the feeling stirred up for many women that, really, it could have been any of us, just trying to walk home.
An outpouring of stories followed on social media demonstrating that male harassment and violence is the exhausting norm rather than an abhorrent exception. The government swiftly responded by outlining its "moves to provide reassurance to women and girls". These measures including “better lighting and CCTV”; an increase in police presence in “areas of potential concern for women and girls” like “parks and alleyways, and routes from bars, restaurants and nightclubs” and more plain clothes officers attending clubs and bars undercover.
Critics have dismissed the plans as not being wide-ranging enough. Susannah Fish, the former Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police, described the move to install more undercover police as “laughable” and “eye catching PR of no substance”.
“Sarah Everard had not been in a bar and was simply walking home – as were thousands of women who have suffered harassment, sexual assault, verbal abuse whilst in public spaces, and will be in the future,” she said.
Now, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who’s currently campaigning to be re-elected on 6 May, has announced his "pledges to refresh London’s strategy for tackling violence against women and girls." At the heart of his strategy is the idea that "men simply must change" to ensure all women are safe and feel safe.
In his re-election manifesto, the Mayor has pledged that he will campaign for sexual harassment to be made a crime in public places, invest in initiatives to reform the behaviour of perpetrators of domestic abuse, and advocate for relationships education for primary pupils and sex education for secondary pupils .
The Mayor adds he will continue to work with the Metropolitan Police to encourage victims of domestic abuse and rape to come forward, and will work closely with them to improve conviction rates whilst doing more to improve the experiences of victims and the services that support them.
Measures to empower women to be active at night will also be introduced – providing safer routes for walking and cycling, working with local authorities on plans to improve lighting in public spaces as a means of "designing out" crime.
Cosmopolitan interviewed the Mayor to discuss his policies, the need to tackle the root causes of violence against women and girls, and the importance of women in positions of power within City Hall and Government.
On what men must do to change
"We should pause and reflect - what work are we doing to address the behaviour of men? That's not just the violence that men do - we've got policies to address those men who are persistent offenders; how we stop them reoffending, how we reform them - but also how we prevent them becoming criminals in the first place. That starts at an early age, with attitudes and behaviours boys develop in schools and I think we've got to look at the education boys received in schools - relationship education, sex education, how we as boys view girls, all the way up to our behaviour in the public space," the Mayor said.
"I think, for example, harassment in the public realm should be a criminal offence. And one of the things I want to do, should I be re-elected, is support the campaigns to make that a criminal offence. I'm really pleased that I supported the campaign from Gina Martin to make upskirting a criminal offence. I've been supporting Stella Creasy’s campaign to make misogyny a hate crime. We've got to play our part as men, we can't leave it to women to address the issue of violence against women and girls."
On improving conviction rates for rape
"I appointed London’s first ever Victim’s Commissioner, she's independent, and what Claire Waxman did was a review of rape cases. What the rape review showed was that in fact, only 6% of allegations of rape reach trial, and only 3% lead to a successful conviction - that can't be right. I don't believe that those numbers do justice to the serious allegations being made. Now we've not got the powers over the criminal justice system I would like and so it's really important that Government does a number of things. We're doing some stuff, for example we've got more independent advisors, supporting women who are victims of sexual abuse and violence including rape, so they can keep their attrition rates as low as possible so people stay with the system.
"The problem is though, there are huge backlogs now with trials because COVID has made it even worse, and the government over the last 10 years has closed a lot of courts down, and there's a big big logjam. So if you're the victim of a rape or a sexual offence, it takes a long time [for the case to] get to trial. And so it's understandable why women decide not to continue. We've got to make sure that the criminal justice system does better supporting victims and survivors more, speeding up trials, allowing women to give evidence by video, not going through their personal history and their phone books.
"This affects all of us. Because if people haven't got confidence to report crime, and don't stay with the prosecution for understandable reasons, the person who's responsible can go on to commit other criminal offences. There are too many examples of people who are serial offenders, and that's why it's in all of our interests for us to ensure we improve the success rate not just of rape, but other serious offences against women as well. I want all women to have confidence in the criminal justice system at the moment. There's not enough trust and confidence."
On the importance of intersectionality in this conversation
"This issue of intersectionality is really important because the experience of a middle class white woman is very different to the experience of working class Black woman of Islamic faith, as an example. And so what we're doing is supporting the provision of safe spaces, particularly for ethnic minority women to come forward and talk about their experiences. I visited today a pharmacist, where there is a safe space. You can go to the UK Says No More website, type your postcode and it tells you a safe space in a pharmacist to go into. We're providing funding for more safe spaces, particularly for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups.
"One of the things that we know is still taking place in 2021, which affects some communities more than others, is the issue of female genital mutilation. We should provide a safe space for victims and those who know what's going on to come forward. It's really important to do that. One of the things we've done from City Hall is financially support those groups who provide specialist assistance to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women, or women from the LGBTQ+ community. We're going to continue to do that, because the issue of intersectionality means not only are you on the receiving end of violence because of your gender, but because of your sexuality, or because of your ethnicity, or because of your religion, or because you have a disability. And it's really important that we stamp that out."
On women having a seat at the table
"The problem is, in Government, most of the people making decisions are blokes whose experiences are different to women and girls and so it's really important around the table, you have women with lived experiences. I'm very pleased and proud that seven out of the 10 Deputy Mayors are women. The key jobs are being done by women in my administration and we'll continue to make progress around transport, policing and crime, culture and other issues.
"You’ve got to understand that it starts early. You speak to girls as I do often, they’re changing the length of their skirt at school because of the behaviour of boys, they’re changing the footwear they wear because of the behaviour of boys, they stop playing sports, because of some of the behaviour of boys and so forth."
On tackling root causes of violence against women and girls
"I'm disappointed in the Government's approach. I think they've missed an opportunity with the bills going through Parliament to make meaningful, permanent changes in our society. Of course enforcement is really important and I welcome their u-turn around misogyny... That by itself won't be enough, or having plainclothes officers going to nightclubs, that by itself won't be enough. They've got to really understand we need root and branch change in our society – these are societal issues about the way patriarchal societies work and that's why I think men simply must change.
"Don’t get me wrong; many of us, I would hope, are good, decent, respectful to women and girls - but a lot of men aren't. Although we've been supporting the victims of violence against women and girls and it’s important that we do so, we’ve got to be targeting the behaviour of boys and men, it starts with the attitudes and behaviour. It could be inappropriate behaviour, it could be sexism, it could be harassment, it could be intimidation of girls going onto threats and violence. We've got to really look at ourselves in a proper way to see are we comfortable that we're doing enough to address the issues that you experience in ways that I don't as a bloke. I've got empathy, but I recognise your experiences are different."
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