At around midnight on a freezing night in March, Jess Chowdhury had just finished her shift in a supermarket in Clapham, south London, when she realised her bus home had been diverted.
The 23-year-old wasn’t annoyed, she was frightened. It was the week that Sarah Everard had disappeared while walking home from a friend’s house. Posters with her face asking for any information were everywhere.
“The streets were completely empty,” she says. “I called my mum and she rushed to meet up with me. It was scary.”
The fear she felt that night shivered through women around south London in the days after the 33-year-old’s disappearance on 3 March. It spread across the city, then the country. And, when Everard was found dead a week later, it turned to fury, as it emerged she was killed by the serving police officer Wayne Couzens, who has pleaded guilty to her murder after admitting in June that he had kidnapped and raped her.
In the months following Everard’s disappearance, the spotlight on violence against women and girls has rarely shone brighter – but has anything really changed? Since Everard was abducted, 52 women have been killed in circumstances where a man is the principal suspect, according to Counting Dead Women, which tracks femicide in the UK. At least 83 women are suspected to have been killed by males since the start of the year, says Karen Ingala Smith, who runs the project.
“Of the women killed by men since Sarah’s death, there have been very few that got significant attention,” she says. “People are quite interested when women are killed by strangers, but most women are killed by partners and ex-partners, and nobody really seems to give a monkey’s about that.”
Andrea Simon, the chief executive of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, says that while there has been an increased focus on men’s violence against women, there is a lag between the rhetoric of change and the policy and funding required to make it happen.
“We’re still on the road to something changing,” she says. “Some of the understanding has come on, but the measures that could make a difference, and, crucially, the resourcing are not where they need to be.”
There has been some tangible progress, argues the feminist academic Betsy Stanko, pointing to the government’s recently published end-to-end rape review which examined a collapse in rape prosecutions.
Although criticised by victims’ groups for a lack of radical action and funding, the report apologised to victims and promised to increase prosecution levels and track performance of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. A £3.2m pilot called Operation Soteria will see four police forces shift focus from complainant’s credibility to defendant behaviour, a programme devised by Stanko and a team of researchers.
‘There’s a crossroads,” she says. “I think part of it is that the police want to change – I’ve never been in that situation before.”
The other major shift is that a generation of young women has found its voice, she adds. “There was such a groundswell of spontaneous anger from young women saying ‘this isn’t good enough’,” she says. “Suddenly the government went, ‘Oh, women are pissed off.’”
After Everard’s killing, the government reopened its call for evidence on its violence against women and girls strategy and more than 160,000 people responded in two weeks, adding to the 19,000 who had answered the call from December to February.
The strategy is due to be published before the end of the month, and a spokesperson for the Home Office said protecting women and girls was “an absolute priority”. They pointed to a £25m safer streets fund for better lighting and CCTV, £40m support services funding, including £16m to recruit more independent sexual violence and domestic abuse advisers and advertising campaigns such as #YouAreNotAlone to encourage reporting and signpost support.
But while the government also cites proposed longer sentences for serious crimes such as rape in the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill as proof of its commitment, Labour argues the legislation “does more to protect statues than women”.
The bill would also have the chilling effect of limiting the very types of protest that have advanced women’s rights, argues Anna Birley, from Reclaim These Streets.
“The right to protest is at the core of making sure that we achieve greater gender equality,” she says. The group has just been granted permission for a full judicial review against the Metropolitan police, for banning what it argues was a lawful vigil it organised to mark Everard’s death. Hundreds gathered in defiance of the order, and images of officers pinning women to the ground at the vigil in Clapham Common in March provoked outrage.
“Demonstrators were silenced, women were manhandled by police officers, and when the police are given opportunities to engage with women they consistently cock it up,” she says. The odds are still stacked against women, particularly women of colour, she says, referencing the Rev Mina Smallman who this week said race hampered the investigation into the murder of her two daughters in north-west London. “That points to a cultural problem in the police that needs to be tackled, if we’re going to achieve greater safety for women.”
But, she hopes, the conversation is changing. “I think that women’s voices have become more powerful,” she says. “We’re starting to have conversations not about how women keep themselves safe, but how we tackle the problem of men attacking women.”
In Clapham, the graffiti about femicide written on the walls of the tube station in the weeks after Everard’s disappearance have been painted over. But the pain of her death remains. “It’s just that quiet, underlying sadness that you carry with you, it builds up,” says Chowdhury. She is not confident of progress, she says, but has not lost hope: “I just want to be able to relax and have peace of mind when I’m walking around.”