Sarah Everard’s Death Has Become Larger Than Life
On March 3, thirty-three year old Sarah Everard vanished as she walked home from a friend’s house. As a woman walking alone, she had done everything “right.” She wore brightly colored, unrevealing clothes. She called her boyfriend as she was leaving to let him know when she would be home. She left before dark, walking on a well-lit main road in south London. And yet, two weeks later, her body was found in Kent, in southern England, almost forty miles from where she had disappeared. Her suspected kidnapper and murderer is Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan police officer. He has been charged with murder. Also arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender is a thirty year old woman, who is currently out on bail.
Sarah’s death sparked outrage. On Saturday, March 13th, a vigil was held in Clapham Commons, near where she was last seen, in order to pay respects as well as raise awareness about the brutality against women. The planned, peaceful vigil was cancelled by Metropolitan police, who claimed COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions as the reason for cancellation. This did not stop people from gathering. Many women, reeling with frustration and sadness, and the feeling that it could have been any woman in their life, or even themselves, went with the intention to peacefully remember Sarah. Yet, this all quickly turned with increased police presence, trying to break up the vigil because of COVID concerns. Attendees noticed a palpable change and a tense atmosphere. Women who had simply gone to stand with other women ended up in handcuffs, sitting in a police van and photographs of them being forced onto the ground by officers on the front pages of newspapers.
Sarah Everard’s murder is a story which has become all too common, all too familiar. And it has become more than just one woman in south London falling victim to men’s brutality. From kidnapping, to murder, to sexual assault and harrassment, women have long been stalked and preyed on. A recent poll from UN Women UK reported that 97% of women, aged 18-24, have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. And yet, only 4% of those women reported their harassment.
To many women, this number unfortunately does not seem very appalling. Harassment and abuse have become normalized in many societies, to the point where women sometimes do not even recognize the injustice. Even if they do think about reporting, there are far too few consequences for sexual offenders. In the UK, women’s groups have claimed that a prosecution service had changed their policies in order to decrease prosecution rates of rape. Their claims have been dismissed, but fact still stands that rape and sexual assault and harassment are underprosecuted, and there needs to be a change, both in mindsets and legislation.
One proposed legislative change has been enacted by police in England and Wales. This coming fall, they are experimentally including misogyny as a hate crime, a distinction which has been advocated for by women’s groups in the UK. Stalking and harassment, as well as other offences, can be included in this. Interestingly, there is no actual required change in law, as these actions could be considered hate crimes under current legislation. One other, more controversial change, is an increase of plainclothes officers on the streets, in an attempt to quell assaults. This has drawn much attention and opposition, as Sarah Everard’s murderer was an officer himself.
The death of Sarah Everard has forced discussion and awareness about how women are intimidated and harassed. Men should be confronted with how they act and how they regard women, and how their actions play a role in silencing women who have suffered abuse. Her death also brings up questions about police, and their authoritative role in gatherings, as well as how they act on the streets, and how they think of women as well. Women should not have to live in fear, yet they do. Change needs to happen, and it needs to be from men. They need to understand that their actions should have consequences, and seemingly harmless comments, or ignoring warning signs in other men can lead to disastrous outcomes.