finance

The police must learn to listen to women


Almost seven years ago to the day I was walking home from work in south London, seven months pregnant, when I was punched in the face in an unprovoked attack by a teenage boy.

Only after it was confirmed the boy had broken my jaw did the police launch an investigation, escalating my case to grievous bodily harm. But no one was ever arrested or charged. At the time I was more preoccupied with whether I would require surgery. Luckily, it was a relatively straight break and I was put on a liquid diet for two months — spanning the final trimester of my pregnancy — and my jaw healed.

I rarely speak about what happened. Within a few months of the attack I had a healthy newborn baby, which was the happiest of distractions. But the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly by a serving police officer, has brought the memories flooding back.

Everard’s abduction and killing as she walked home from a friend’s house has prompted an outcry from women demanding better protection on the streets. They are also calling for acts of harassment to be taken seriously enough by the police to make them worth reporting.

Last week, a report by UN Women UK found that 71 per cent of all women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space; only 3 per cent of women aged between 18 and 24 said they had not been harassed. Moreover, more than 95 per cent of those who had experienced harassment did not report their experiences, with 55 per cent saying they “didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report” and 45 per cent saying they “didn’t think reporting it would help”.

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“The data . . . shows us that women have lost faith in the system,” says Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK. “They are unlikely to report incidents of violence and sexual harassment; they don’t believe that anything will change as a result of their reports . . . That’s a call to action for leaders everywhere to do better on taking action in response to the stories women share — and to do it more visibly.”

One campaign, co-ordinated by Labour MP Stella Creasy, is hoping to make misogyny a hate crime through an amendment to the domestic abuse bill currently being debated in the House of Lords. The amendment calls for police services to record and investigate all crimes motivated by hatred of women.

My case was only pursued by the police for a few weeks before it was closed due to a lack of leads. I have often wondered why the boy thought it was OK to punch a heavily pregnant woman in the face. Though I wanted justice, I also wanted to understand my perpetrator and the circumstances that drove him to commit such a violent crime.

Because the incident happened so close to home and no one had been charged, before my son was born I feared I would come face to face with my attacker again. Then I worried about bumping into my assailant with a baby in tow. I was always scared, but I learned to compartmentalise.

However, women should not have to brush aside a crime or try to ignore their fear. They should feel confident that the police will act to protect them, and that it is worth reporting an incident rather than trying to just “put it out of their minds”, as so many of us do.

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The scenes of women being forced to the ground and cuffed by the police while attending Everard’s vigil does little to give assurance that officers are ready to listen to their concerns. Neither does the double murder case last June of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, where two Metropolitan Police officers were suspended for taking “inappropriate photographs” at the crime scene.

Such behaviour from a force that is meant to protect us raises concerns and erodes confidence. This is not a fight against men; it is a fight to get women heard.

iseult.fitzgerald@ft.com



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