I was sexually assaulted by a stranger – he got 12 years in prison but I still don’t feel safe
One year after Sarah Everard’s murder: why do women still feel so unsafe on our streets?
It’s been 12 months since the 33-year-old marketing executive was abducted on her walk home, but despite national outcry over women’s safety and government promises to better protect us, many feel more vulnerable than ever.
After visiting a friend on the evening of March 3, 2021, Sarah Everard wrapped herself up in a cream beanie and turquoise raincoat, and set off on the two-and-a-half-mile walk from Clapham, south London, to her home in Brixton.
At 9pm, she started walking along a busy, well-lit street and called her boyfriend, Josh Lowth, then 33, on the way.
She should have been unlocking her front door 45 minutes later, but Sarah never made it home. She was kidnapped, raped and murdered by Met policeman Wayne Couzens, 48, who was later sentenced to life in prison.
In the days after Sarah’s disappearance, a wave of female anger engulfed social media and the country at large.
Three days after her burned body was found in a builder’s bag in Kent woodland an hour’s drive from Couzens’ home, more than 500 women marched to Clapham Common to mourn her death and protest for improvements to women’s safety.
Despite promises of radical change to laws, infrastructure, and police response to the way crimes against women are prioritised from the government, one year on, many feel more vulnerable than ever.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows 80% of women say they feel unsafe walking alone after dark in an open space such as a park, while 50% feel unsafe walking alone after dark in any space – including Britain’s streets. It’s little wonder.
At least 140 women have died in violent circumstances in the last year where the main suspect was male.*
In the past decade, the figures stand at 1,425, which equates to one death every three days.**
The majority of women who are murdered know their killer, but now restrictions have eased there are fears that murders by strangers will double from 6% during lockdown to the 13% it stood at pre-pandemic.
Meanwhile, despite conviction rates hitting a record low, rapes and sexual offences have hit a record high, up 13% and 12% respectively from 2020.***
‘When I started screaming, he ran’
Aoife Grace, 22, an employment adviser, is just one victim. Walking home from a friend’s birthday party in September 2020, she was attacked in an alleyway two minutes from her front door in Horsham, West Sussex.
The perpetrator, Anthony Uwakwe-Nwagwu, 21, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexual assault by penetration last September, but Aoife tells Fabulous she will never recover from the trauma.
“It was 2.30am and I was on the phone to my friend – because that’s what you do when you walk home alone,” she recalls.
“When my friend had to go, I got a terrible feeling somebody was behind me. I stopped suddenly and felt a hand wrap around my mouth.
“I completely froze and he pushed my knickers aside and put his fingers inside me.
“Then I remembered I had my keys to open the front door ready in my hand and hit his face with them. His hand came off my mouth and when I started screaming, he ran.”
Aoife’s neighbours heard the noise and called the police.
Her attacker was caught at the crime scene half an hour later searching for his phone.
CCTV showed he had been following Aoife for 16 minutes down well-lit streets without her knowing.
“In the weeks after the attack, I really struggled with simple things like putting the bins out.
“I was terrified I was going to bump into him at the end of my drive because he’d been released on bail,” says Aoife.
“I was OK when I was with family and friends, but it was moments of vulnerability, like getting out of the shower when I was home alone, that were the scariest.
“I had flashbacks constantly. I was always looking out for him when I went out. It felt like I couldn’t breathe until he was finally charged three months later in December.”
Aoife has since relocated to Sheffield to start a new chapter. The attack has also had an impact on her relationship.
“I have a boyfriend who I was dating before the assault, and being intimate for the first time afterwards was petrifying,” she says.
“I thought I was going to have a full-blown meltdown, but because it was with someone I was in a relationship with, it was OK. If I’m ever single again, I don’t know what I’ll do.
“Although my attacker is in prison now, I don’t feel any safer. I’m constantly looking behind me when I’m walking alone.”
In the months following Sarah’s murder, violence against women has been made a “strategic policing requirement” in government.
For the first time, a national police chief – Maggie Blyth – was appointed to specifically tackle violence against women and girls.
How you can get help
Women's Aid has this advice for victims and their families:
- Always keep your phone nearby.
- Get in touch with charities for help, including the Women’s Aid live chat helpline and services such as SupportLine.
- If you are in danger, call 999.
- Familiarise yourself with the Silent Solution, reporting abuse without speaking down the phone, instead dialing “55”.
- Always keep some money on you, including change for a pay phone or bus fare.
- If you suspect your partner is about to attack you, try to go to a lower-risk area of the house – for example, where there is a way out and access to a telephone.
- Avoid the kitchen and garage, where there are likely to be knives or other weapons. Avoid rooms where you might become trapped, such as the bathroom, or where you might be shut into a cupboard or other small space.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse, SupportLine is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6pm to 8pm on 01708 765200. The charity’s email support service is open weekdays and weekends during the crisis – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women’s Aid provides a live chat service – available weekdays from 8am-6pm and weekends 10am-6pm.
You can also call the freephone 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
Plus, a £45million Safer Streets Fund was allocated for nationwide neighbourhood measures, such as better lighting and CCTV, and The Safety of Women at Night Fund awarded £5million to 22 organisations for initiatives such as drink-spiking detection kits and transport safety campaigns.
But critics argue these budgets are “pennies” considering the scale of the epidemic of male violence.
Compare, for example, the £16billion lost to fraud and error in business loans during the pandemic to the just over £50million being proposed to better protect women and girls on our streets.
Since Sarah’s death there have been a string of women murdered by strangers. Police community support officer Julia James, 53, was violently killed while walking her dog in the Kent countryside in April.
Maria Rowlings, 45, was battered to death with a wooden stick embedded with nails after a chance encounter on the bus with her killer in Romford in May.
And primary school teacher Sabina Nessa, 28, was killed after being repeatedly struck with a weapon as she walked near her south-east London flat in September.
“It’s all headlines with the current government,” Jess Phillips MP, shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, tells Fabulous.
“They throw millions here and there, but it’s symbolism not strategy. The government hasn’t made public sexual harassment a crime, despite saying they would.
“Not only would doing that send the message that this behaviour is just not acceptable, but it would also identify low-level perpetration so it can be monitored before it escalates.
“The man who killed Sarah [Everard] didn’t start with a killing.”
Weeks before Sarah’s murder, Couzens had been reported to police for repeatedly flashing female workers at a McDonald’s in Swanley, Kent.
Meanwhile, radio DJ Emma B has since identified Couzens as the man who exposed himself to her in 2008 when she was walking in Greenwich, London, with her baby in a pram, but said police “laughed in her face” when she reported it.
Shockingly, more than 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced lewd comments, catcalling, and persistent sexual propositioning, as have 70% of women of all ages.†
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, has also called to make misogyny a hate crime, meaning it would be treated on the same level as racism and homophobia.
The bill was passed by the House of Lords in January, however Boris Johnson claimed it would overload the police, and Priti Patel has called on MPs to reject the bill when it returns to the Commons.
Safeguarding minister Rachel MacLean tells Fabulous: “This isn’t a position we’ve arrived at because we don’t want to make misogyny a hate crime.
“We’ve asked the Law Commission to review the laws and their advice is they think it would be counter-productive to make misogyny a specific hate crime, because it would make it harder to prosecute rape and other serious sexual offences.”
Talisker Cornford, 22, founder of Urban Angels, a series of nationwide Facebook communities where women can share alerts of threats in their cities, says these moves will only further fail women and girls, and current legislation doesn’t deter the street harassment women face every day.
“I live near a busy high street in Wembley and I’m harassed at least three times a week. I don’t think the government understands how threatening this kind of behaviour is,” she says.
“I’ve been groped, grabbed and touched on the bum. One time, a stranger followed me to my flat.
“The automatic door to the building closed behind me and he started banging on the glass.”
Following Sarah’s death last year, Talisker – who lives with her boyfriend – set up Urban Angels to help women feel safer.
“Since then, I’ve also bought a rape alarm and always think about footwear when I’m going out alone, like: ‘Can I run in these heels?’ We live in a society where we have to protect ourselves. There is a lack of trust between women and the police now, which is a real issue.”
A YouGov poll on behalf of the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition found 47% of women have lost trust in the police since Sarah’s death.
There could be no more grotesque betrayal than that of Couzens, who used his warrant card and handcuffs to detain Sarah, accusing her of breaking lockdown rules, before putting her in what she must have believed was a police car.
It later emerged that Couzens was nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues at the Met – and he wasn’t just one rotten apple.
Last month, two officers and one former officer were charged with sending “grossly offensive” messages in a WhatsApp group that included Couzens.
Meanwhile, in December, former Met police officers Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis were jailed for two years and nine months for taking pictures of the bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry, 46, and Nicole Smallman, 27, who were stabbed to death by a stranger in June 2020.
They shared the images in two WhatsApp groups, one of which included 41 police officers, calling the victims “dead birds”.
Meanwhile, in October it was revealed that 2,000 allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, have been levelled against serving police officers over the last four years.
And the Met’s behaviour came under fire when women at Sarah’s vigil – which the Duchess of Cambridge attended, laying flowers from her garden – were arrested for breaking Covid restrictions and seen being aggressively pinned to the ground.
Last month, Met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick was forced to resign after London Mayor Sadiq Khan accused her of failing to root out a culture of misogyny and racism.
It followed an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct that concluded “disgraceful” misogyny, discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment were at the core of Britain’s biggest force.
“Women will never be able to trust the police as long as this toxic culture remains,” says Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party.
“This behaviour has the potential to re-traumatise victims and make women feel like it’s pointless to seek help from the police. The police are supposed to protect us – and we are being betrayed.”
As Couzens was sentenced to life without parole at the Old Bailey last September, Sarah’s family faced the man who murdered their daughter.
“In the morning I wake up to the awful reality that Sarah is gone,” said her mother Susan.
“In the evenings, at the time she was abducted, I let out a silent scream: ‘Don’t get in the car, Sarah. Don’t believe him. Run!’”
In the Commons on Tuesday, Jess Phillips MP will read out the names of every woman killed by a man since last year’s IWD. The harrowing list is expected to take her seven minutes to read.
Sarah’s name will be first – a heartbreaking reminder that despite the outrage over her death, there has been no meaningful change.
“Every year I hope the task will be less harrowing and it never is,” says Jess. “Women feel less safe now, if anything. I wouldn’t feel safe walking more than 100 metres at night.
“I’ve had men expose themselves to me and grope me – it’s exhausting. None of us should feel afraid to walk home.”
Photography: AP, Enterprise News and Pictures, Getty Images, PA, Metropolitan Police/MEGA, Kent Police/PA Wire, Metropolitan Police/PA Wire Sources: *Restart **Femicide Census ***ONS †YouGov
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