Sarah Everard anniversary: Rape Crisis CEO says progress on violence against women feels ‘unbearably slow’

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One year on from the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard, Rape Crisis chief executive officer Jayne Butler reflects on the fight for justice for victims of male violence - and on why it feels ‘pervasive and inescapable’ for women and girls.

In the year since Sarah Everard was murdered, we have collectively mourned and raged for Sarah and for the many other women who have been harmed by male violence since.

Sarah’s murder resonated with so many of us because it was our worst fears made real. It was the threat of male violence materialised. It reminds us of our own ‘near-misses’ and the adjustments we make to our daily lives.

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It also demonstrated in stark terms how so much of our daily lives is dictated by our fear of male violence – or at least carried out under its shadow. Whether it’s walking through a park, going for a run or waiting for a bus, we as women are constantly weighing up risks, looking for escape routes or analysing how safe we feel.

The anger at the injustice of Sarah’s murder was palpable, and the vigils, marches and demonstrations allowed women to come together to show solidarity.

A women is killed by a man every three days

Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy are just a few of the women killed by men whose names have made it into the public conscious. The Counting Dead Women project, which tracks the deaths of women in the UK at the hands of male violence, provides a harrowing insight into the scale of the problem: it estimates that a woman is killed by a man in our country every three days.

And yet, despite the public outrage, there have been few real steps taken to tackle the misogyny that is widespread throughout British society and our state institutions.

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From the appalling misogyny and racism displayed by the Metropolitan police and other forces, to the reported influx of spikings at clubs and parties, to the normalisation of sexual harassment in schools, violence against women and girls feels pervasive, inescapable and unavoidable.

The opportunity for radical change is here. In the past year, report after report has been published detailing institutional failings and giving recommendations for what needs to change. Apologies and outrage have flowed, but progress has felt unbearably slow. It doesn’t feel like the everyday life and experience of women has changed at all.

While the Government focused its attention on expensive ‘safety’ apps, street lighting and advising women to flag down buses, those working on the frontline with victims and survivors of sexual violence and abuse called for real and substantive action: an overhaul of the criminal justice system, a focus on campaigns that target perpetrator behavior and sustainable funding for specialist support services.

‘Devastatingly long court delays’

For the few victims and survivors who do see their cases taken on, meanwhile, they must face devastatingly long court delays. This leads many to experience intensified trauma symptoms, such as flashbacks, panic attacks and heightened anxiety and stress.

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Rape Crisis Centres work extremely hard, providing specialist and life-changing support. In 2020-21, Rape Crisis Centres provided almost 1.1 million sessions of specialist support, an increase of 41% from 2019-20. But demand for services far exceeds the funding available.

There are currently more than 12,000 people on Rape Crisis waiting lists, the vast majority of whom are waiting for trauma-informed counselling and other therapies.

We need more than apologies and promises

Violence against women and girls is not inevitable. In the past year there has been a noticeable cultural shift towards accountability, and eliminating male violence is now high on the public agenda. If the Government and justice agencies follow through on their promises, we could see some meaningful changes in the way that rape victims and survivors are treated.

But we need more than just apologies and promises.

It’s time for the radical action that those of us in the women’s sector have been demanding for years. Action that would include long-term funding for specialist sexual violence support services, a concerted effort to tackle rape culture and zero tolerance for those in power who abuse their positions. Only then will we start to see real justice.

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