The murder of Sarah Everard and the shadow pandemic

Safe spaces for women are shrinking, but increased policing will not solve the problem.

Sarah Everard
A sign is seen on March 13, 2021 as people gather at a memorial site in Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, in London [Reuters/Hannah McKay]

On March 3, a 33-year-old British woman, Sarah Everard, disappeared in London. A little over a week later, her remains were discovered in woodland in Kent and a police officer was charged with kidnapping and murdering her.

It was amid this tragic news in the United Kingdom that we marked International Women’s Day as well as the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s designation of the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic.

Everard’s murder comes on the heels of a massive increase in violence against women across the globe in the past year. This and the countless other violent attacks on women should be a wake-up call for societies.

A shadow pandemic

Everard’s picture and story made front-page news, and as more information about the case came out, there was an outpouring of rage and sorrow across the country. On social media, many women shared their stories about experiences of sexual harassment and fears about walking alone at night. Female politicians from across the political spectrum have also gone public with their personal stories of sexual abuse and fear, demanding that the government do more to make “the UK safer for women”.

While Everard’s murder captured the attention of the media in the UK and abroad – most likely because she was a white, attractive middle-class woman – the public does not hear anything at all about the vast majority of cases of sexual harassment and deadly violence against women.

A recent survey from UN Women UK reports that among women aged 18-24, 97 percent said they had been sexually harassed while 80 percent of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. The statistics about violent deaths are also shocking: a woman is murdered every other day in the UK, with the majority killed by an intimate partner or someone known to the victim.

Domestic violence has worsened with the pandemic. In the first month after a lockdown was imposed in the UK, murders related to domestic abuse tripled compared to 2019 figures, while calls to domestic abuse services jumped by 50 percent.

Data from across the world shows similar dramatic increases in gender-based violence. A chilling report issued by UN Women reveals that violent crimes against women have intensified across the globe since March 2020. Many women experiencing violence at home are simply failing to receive any kind of support. The UN report concludes that the global rise in gender-based violence – at home and in the streets – needs to be understood as another kind of pandemic, a shadow pandemic.

The reality, as these statistics and reports lay bare and Everard’s murder highlights, is that misogyny, systemic male entitlement, and violence against women are thriving. More than 100 years have passed since the first International Women’s Day, but we are still a very long way from putting an end to gender-based discrimination and violence.

Shrinking safe spaces

Everard’s murder and the public’s response to it need to be put in the larger context of shrinking safe spaces for women. The increased anxieties around sexual assault underscore the fact that public spaces too often can be extremely hostile towards women.

Furthermore, even though seemingly random attacks are much less prevalent than those carried out by men known to the victims, hearing about cases like Everard’s still takes a psychological toll. If it can happen to someone like Everard, if it can be perpetrated by a police officer, and if the attack is seemingly random, then it can happen to any woman, anywhere, at any time. Everard’s killing helps produce and reinforce a sense that the threat of gender-based violence is everywhere.

Sharing difficult and often tragic stories as well as exposing the ubiquity of both the violence and the fear are crucial. And, yes, we do need to insist that men change their behaviour and that governments legislate against sexual harassment and assault. But the solution to systemic and structural sexism does not lie with more police on the street or individual men changing their behaviour. Rather, it lies in the complete transformation of our societies: from our gender norms through our common sense, to our economies that reproduce patriarchal hierarchies.

All of this leads us back to International Women’s Day. This protest, alongside the many contemporary struggles against sexual violence around the world – the #MeToo movement in many countries, the Women’s March in the United States, Ni Una Menos in Argentina, the protests against femicide in Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa, and the demonstrations in India in response to gang rapes of lower-caste women – have been mobilising women and men against sexual assault, femicide and all gender-based discrimination.

These movements have helped open the floodgates of repressed rage at the pervasiveness of violence against women. They have helped to make it loud and clear that women – cis-women and trans-women as well as gender non-conforming people and their allies – will not be cowed into silence and that they will not stop until they do take back the night – both in the streets and in the bedroom.

It is only through global feminist solidarity and mass mobilisation that we will succeed in making the radical changes necessary for making gender justice our new reality.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.