What Sarah Everard's Murder Tells Us About How Gender-Based Violence Is Handled Worldwide
Covering gender equality around the world, I end up writing about gender-based violence (GBV) pretty regularly. I’ve come to accept the sad truth that the names of many survivors or victims often don’t become a central part of the stories that make it into the media or people’s everyday conversations, at least not right away. I’ve noticed this is especially the case if they live in developing countries or are women of color, and I can think of a few recent examples of this trend playing out.
In the summer of 2020, activists at Black Lives Matter protests chanted “Say Her Name,” a rallying cry to remember that Breonna Taylor and other Black women had also lost their lives at the hands of police brutality in the US. Up until that point, the movement had largely focused on the murders of Black men in the wake of George Floyd’s death, even though Taylor was killed only months before him.
Around the same time, an Instagram selfie challenge went viral under the guise of female empowerment. It took days before most participants learned the campaign had actually started in Turkey to seek justice for Pinar Gülteki, a 27-year-old femicide victim who was killed by her boyfriend.
When a white man targeted Asian businesses in Atlanta, Georgia, just last week and murdered eight people, we learned his name, Robert Aaron Long, long before those of the six Asian women whom he shot senselessly: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue.
When I started seeing headlines about a middle-class, 33-year-old white woman who was found dead in London in early March, something seemed different. This particular tragedy quickly gained traction from outlets around the world, and they were all calling her by name –– Sarah Everard.
What happened to Everard resonated with so many people in the West that it made its way to my social media feeds. She didn’t suffer an acid attack in a remote village, she didn’t die in an honor killing because she embarrassed her family, and she wasn’t caught in armed conflict. She was “doing everything right” –– walking home alone at night in South London at a reasonable hour, talking on the phone with her boyfriend for safety. She was still subjected to kidnapping and murder, with accused police officer Wayne Couzens going to trial in the autumn. This was a relatable scenario for women around the world and the graphic of the phrase “text me when you get home,” which received over 2 million likes, seemed to prove it.
Perhaps Everard’s death could be a catalyst for swift action to stop GBV, I thought. Everard’s death painted a clear picture of the flaws in our society’s handling of GBV, even in wealthy countries like the UK.
Authorities advised women to stay home to protect themselves and not walk alone at night, sparking outrage across London. Law enforcement’s recommendations put the onus on women to stop GBV, per usual. Women protesters who gathered at a vigil for Everard were met with police violence, giving women another reason to distrust the police.
Could this be the horrific case that finally gets people to call for the protection and safety of all women everywhere, not just for people like Everard? Would people finally understand that the rise in GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the “shadow pandemic,” is very real?
Violence against women impacts 1 in 3 women in their lifetime, according to the World Bank, yet more than 1 billion women still lack legal protection against domestic violence. We know the statistics but it can feel like the issue isn’t being taken as seriously as it should, particularly when it impacts women living in poverty.
Feminist philosopher Kate Manne pointed to philosopher Audrey Yap’s concept of “inadequate stories” to illustrate why women might’ve gravitated toward Everard’s particular case in a piece for the Atlantic.
“People are most — and sometimes only — willing to accept scenarios of male violence that conform to a narrow paradigm,” Manne wrote. “The public can easily understand, and be moved by, the narrative of a young, attractive, white, blond woman walking home and being abducted and murdered by an apparent stranger.”
The reality, however, is that most murders of women do not occur randomly in public spaces, a fact UK authorities have chosen to ignore, focusing instead on offering more street lights and increasing undercover policing in nightclubs.
Research has shown that gender violence is usually inflicted by someone the woman knows closely. In 2017, more than a third of femicide victims were killed by their current or former intimate partner, and more than half were killed by intimate partners or family members. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, home isn’t safe for many women and girls who are trapped with their abusers and who have limited access to support or assistance.
The docuseries Murder in Slow Motion recently resurfaced the mishandling of another murder case in the UK that showed what is at stake when women don’t receive the help they need. Nineteen-year-old Sarah Grice was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 2016 after she filed complaints to police five times and received a £90 fine in return, instead of an investigation or protection.
Many GBV incidents go underreported or unreported altogether because women fear that like Grice, they won’t be believed, they’ll be blamed, or retraumatized in the process of explaining what happened to them to the police.
Similar to Grice’s case, Everard’s perpetrator, Couzens, also showed red flags three days before her murder. He was reported for indecent exposure but presumably continued to do his job. If he had served consequences for his actions, maybe Everard would still be alive.
In countries around the world, police, other authorities, families, or communities often dismiss domestic abuse even when there are clear warning signs of violent behavior patterns, Hillary Margolis, senior researcher Women’s Rights Division at the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Global Citizen. We’ve seen this time and time again in the US when it’s revealed that mass shooters often have had a history of domestic violence.
While what went wrong to cause Everard’s death has galvanized a lot of attention to GBV, advocates are concerned that certain nuances and the most vulnerable women will continue to be left out of the conversations about how to move forward.
“I worry that the voices of Black women, migrant women, Asian women, women and minority groups, women in marginalized groups will not be included, which has always been the case,” Margolis said.
Advocates are now using momentum from Everard’s murder to demand answers and question whether discrimination prevented a full investigation of the mysterious death of Blessing Olusegun. The body of Olusegun, a 21-year-old Black woman, was found on a beach in the UK’s East Sussex county in September 2020, but her case was ruled “non-suspicious,” leaving her loved ones without answers.
Fully understanding that many women face hostile environments in daily life and not all are taken seriously when they call for justice, is also necessary for progress toward ending GBV, Jacqui Hunt, director of the organization Equality Now’s Europe and Eurasia offices, told Global Citizen.
“If you're not in public life, if you're not a politician, if you're not in the media, if you're not in all these other spaces, your voice and your perspective isn't being heard,” she said.
Governments tend to approach GBV with knee-jerk reactions such as telling women not to walk home alone at night, rather than investing in long-term systemic change or training police and authorities to adequately handle and prevent abuses against them, HRW’s Margolis explained. Women’s groups also argue that increasing penalties for rape charges won’t go very far considering that between 2019 and 2020, less than 3% of reported rapes were prosecuted in London.
Margolis hopes Everard’s death garners more support for a new domestic abuse bill in the UK that is going through Parliament but currently lacks protections for migrant women and would still put some of the country’s most vulnerable women at risk.
“I would love to see people take to the streets about the domestic abuse bill,” she said. “I would love to see people really outraged about the fact that there are so-called solutions being potentially put in place that are really only for some women and girls, not all women and girls.”
Funding and services for gender-based violence have also been “gutted” over the past year in the UK, particularly for marginalized women, Margolis explained. Women in marginalized communities have done the organizing and research to combat GBV but their perspectives do not always cut through, she said.
Advocates are urging for a major shift toward prevention that looks like including comprehensive sexual education in schools from a young age, addressing gender stereotypes, modeling respect for women and girls, making clear that GBV will be prosecuted, and holding institutions accountable.
“We have to have accountability in our institutions to make sure that the people [who are] racist and sexist do not pass into a job where they're allowed to exhibit these behaviors,” Hunt said. “They need either not to be accepted to specific places or they need training and sensitization on how to behave properly.
“Policemen are also a product of our society,” she added. “They need to be held accountable, but in the same way that we need to hold each other and everybody accountable for this and for male violence against women.”