On March 3, 2021 33-year-old Sarah Everard disappeared while walking home in London, U.K. By March 10, her body had been found over 50 miles away from where she was last seen and a police officer was arrested for her kidnap and murder.
Her murder sparked a digital outcry among British women not seen since the start of the Me Too movement in 2017. As they shared experiences of feeling unsafe at night, the politics of walking home went viral.
While Sarah’s story captured the media’s attention, could it help bring the stories of other missing and murdered women up from the abyss? Furthermore, could the circumstances of her kidnapping inspire global authorities to make public spaces safer? But at what cost?
Sarah Everard’s Case is No Isolated Incident
On March 13, a vigil was held for Sarah on London’s Clapham Common, a public park, under the slogan “Take Back the Streets.” Many attended despite lockdown laws, and police were criticized for their heavy-handed arrests.
Everard was a white woman and many of the women at her vigil were too; but for a brief moment, they experienced police violence, something that Black individuals have faced for generations and many Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters experienced during the suppression of protests in 2020.
Like for BLM, where opposition online responded by citing that “all lives matter,” a “not all men” hashtag started trending on Twitter, which revealed the widespread ignorance about the violence women experience daily.
While Everard’s case sparked huge coverage, race and social standing often dictate which acts of violence gain public attention. In the 1990s in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, many women went missing and were murdered, often on unlit streets to and from the factories, known as Maquiladoras, where they worked.
Race still plays a factor in how quickly a missing person’s case is picked up. Last year, a young Black woman called Blessing Olusegun went missing in the U.K. town of Bexhill and when her body was later found on the beach, her death was ruled as “unexplainable.”
Since Everard’s murder, there has been a public petition to reinvestigate Blessing’s death, where some think racial bias against Black people in public services stalled the investigation.
In Canada, the relatives of the country’s many missing indigenous women have found it difficult to persuade the authorities to take them seriously. Police have been known to question the character of the missing person rather than pursue the case.
Women face danger at work too. In Atlanta, Georgia in March, a male suspect opened fire in city spas, killing eight people including a number of female Asian and Asian-American employees.
In pedestrian-heavy cities, authorities must make the streets better lit and enable women to occupy these spaces day or night. A movement to install more lighting in the park that Sarah Everard passed through has been successful, and should be mirrored in parks worldwide.
Increased video surveillance might also help keep public spaces safe and ensure accountability. After all, footage from a passing bus camera was used to convict Everard’s murderer. However, it raises many concerns about personal rights to privacy and may perpetuate racial biases, as facial recognition technology has famously misidentified innocent people as criminals and led to increased the arrests and searches among certain racial and ethnic groups.
But street footage and better lit parks won’t solve the root of the problem. It won’t protect women from domestic violence, which has been on the rise in many homes around the world since COVID-19 began. Nor will they change the attitudes of the men who perpetrate gender violence.
Growing awareness about rape could be the force needed to lobby the authorities to convict more rapists. Figures from the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service found that while rape cases have risen over the past five years, prosecutions have more than halved.
The global media must also take responsibility for what and how they report; they should report stories of violence against women more often and with nuance and care, and not wait until a murder has been committed to write a sensationalized article. They should also assess their own biases, and ensure fair and sufficient reporting about women of color.
We also need to reassess how we talk about violence against women; American lecturer Jackson Katz believes the commonly used phrases remove the male perpetrator from the discussion. We must all pay attention to how we frame conversations to ensure responsibility and accountability. But as Katz said in a recent discussion with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, we have to talk about gender violence in a way that men can no longer “look away,” an act that renders them either passive bystanders or allows them to commit these crimes with impunity.
Annie May Byrne Noonan is a journalist and copywriter.