MPs have warned there is an “epidemic” of violence against women in the UK which is not taken seriously enough after a woman disappeared in south London.
Campaigners accused the government of failing to properly fund services which tackle domestic and sexual violence, saying the £165 million ministers announced for domestic abuse services in 2021-22 “falls far short” of the £393 million required.
Vigils are being held around the UK and in Clapham in south east London on Saturday after Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, went missing after leaving a friend’s flat there last week.
It comes as troubling updates on Everard’s case, which have seen human remains found in Kent woodlands on Wednesday, come as a survey by UN Women this week found 97 per cent of young women in the UK said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces.
Researchers, who polled more than 1,000 women aged between 18 to 24, found the sexual harassment included being groped, followed and coerced into sexual activity.
While domestic abuse has surged in the wake of the Covid crisis – with the UK’s national domestic abuse helpline seeing a 34 per cent rise in contacts and calls between April and December last year compared to the same period the previous year.
Women’s fears about street harassment have also soared during the pandemic, with research finding almost three quarters of women are scared of exercising outside in the dark and another study revealing young women say sexual harassment became worse in the lockdown.
Police are now questioning a male police officer on suspicion of kidnap and murder in Everard’s case. Her disappearance has sparked an outpouring of anger as women have told of instances where they were threatened or sexually harassed by men while walking home alone and MPs have noted the daily fear many women feel on the streets after dark.
Jess Phillips, Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, told Radio 4’s Today programme, random attacks on the street were a “rarity, if that is what this was”, before adding: “The reality is that it’s not a rare crime. Since last week since when Sarah first went missing, six women and a little girl have been have been reported as being killed at the hands of men.
“So it’s not particularly rare and the fear that women live with is an everyday thing. For most women, they have had some form of experience that they feel frightened of and the message that they [the Metropolitan Police] should be sending out is not one about what women should or shouldn’t do.
“It is about how serious violence against women and girls is and how it is an epidemic that we have to put far more attention and resource into.”
The politician paid tribute to 118 women killed by men in the last year by reading out their names at the annual International Women’s Day debate in parliament on Thursday.
Farah Nazeer, chief executive at Women’s Aid, told The Independent: “Violence against women and girls is a crisis of global proportions, which is driven by women’s inequality in society. The pandemic has shone a light on the fact that women are not safe at home, and… they are not safe in public either.
“The £165 million that the government has announced for domestic abuse support services in 2021-22 falls far short of the £393 million that Women’s Aid estimates is needed for domestic abuse alone.”
Ms Nazeer said the government needs to include domestic abuse within the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, otherwise we will be “put in reverse.”
She added: “We need a joined-up strategy that tackles these crimes as a cause and consequence of women’s inequality.“
Two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or ex-partner, while one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives.
Dawn Butler, the Labour MP for Brent Central, tweeted: “I may have had three hours sleep. Getting ready to go into Parliament. For #IWD2021 debate. I’m thinking about the police officer who patrolled the corridors of Westminster with guns and now he has been arrested. It totally blows my mind.”
The former Shadow Women and Equalities Minister added: “And to think that the man, a policeman who is supposed to make people feel safe may have done this has shaken people to their core. I have cried for Sarah today. A life so brutally taken.”
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, tweeted: “We don’t know true scale of violence and harassment women face on our streets because it is underreported, to know whether it is ‘thankfully rare’. It’s time all police force’s treated women as equally worthy of protection and started recording hate we face.”
PC Wayne Couzens, a serving officer, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and a separate allegation of indecent exposure. The 48-year-old serves in the Metropolitan Police Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command with his chief role being uniformed patrol of diplomatic sites.
Caroline Nokes, a Conservative MP who is chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “We must be safe to walk home alone, without needing our keys in our hand, with our headphones on if we choose, wearing what we like.”
Charlotte Kneer, who runs Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge for domestic abuse victims at risk of murder in their own homes, told The Independent women frequently die in their own homes in Britain.
She added: “I have been calling for too many years for more investment in this huge issue. We need investment in early education about equality and healthy relationships. We need investment in supporting victims of male violence against women and girls.
“We need to stop telling women how to protect themselves and start telling men to stop hurting them. You don’t need to look very far to find examples of misogyny in everyday life and everyone, especially men should be calling that out whenever they hear it.”
Ms Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor whose violent partner was jailed for seven years in 2011, called for sentencing in the criminal justice system to show violence against women and girls “will not be tolerated”.
She said: “Men, instead of saying not all men do this, start saying I’m going to do everything in my power to stop those that are doing it.”