The events that have unfolded over the last 10 days since the disappearance of Sarah Everard, a 27-year-old woman who went missing after leaving a friend’s flat on March 3rd, have been upsetting and traumatising for many.
Thousands of women have found themselves in Sarah’s tragic story. This experience is then doubly troubling for those women who as well as seeing themselves in Sarah, also see themselves in the Black and Brown women who have gone missing, been murdered and who have not had this same level of public attention.
The same goes for so many trans and marginalised gendered people who have been attacked, gone missing or murdered and their names have barely caused a ripple in the public conscious.
As the days went by after March 3rd, the growing fear among the public was palpable. As with most missing cases, thoughts turn to the worst-case scenario the more time passes. On March 10th remains were found in woodland near Ashford, Kent. Eventually, the messages online of sadness and grief for Sarah Everard turned introspective.
By the 12th of March, there wasn’t a social media app or news media outlet not reporting on the case, especially as public outcry was fuelled by the news that the man who allegedly murdered Sarah is in fact a Police Officer.
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The exposure of this case, unfortunately, provides many possible areas of re-traumatising for those that it has affected the most
One of the most pertinent issues that have come up as a result of this case has been Police handling of a reported assault, abuse and rape, the very literal silencing by shutting down peaceful vigils and the unnecessary force used when arresting vigil attendees. This re-traumatising can then re-victimise those who have felt ignored or who haven’t been believed when they’ve attempted to tell their truths or report a crime in the past.
In November 2020, an 80-page report by the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against (EVAW) Women Coalition, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England and Wales, found that out of the 55,259 rapes reported in 2019, there were only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions. This is a shocking statistic and one that further proves the serious issues within the Police and justice system in how they perceive and act on violence against women.
This refusal to believe women’s experiences or treat them with the severity they deserve resurfaces lived through traumas from women’s own lives. Many have felt silenced, not believed by family, friends and loved ones. This all adds to a climate where women feel as though they cannot access the help and support, they need.
Reporting on the case of Sarah Everard and the subsequent call for reformation around the state's treatment of violence towards women, EVAW said in a statement: “The case attracted enormous public support and attention including almost 4,000 individual donations via a Crowdjustice page… Most of the donations came in small amounts from women, who had themselves been let down by the criminal justice system when they tried to report their rape.”
This shared experience is then also tied up with racial wounds for so many Black and Brown women
Missing and murdered cases of Black and Brown women too often do not garner the same attention. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement brought some of these cases back to the forefront of people’s minds such as Shukri Abdi who became a face for murdered Black women and girls in the UK.
Last year, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, were found murdered in a park in London. The family of the two women felt entirely neglected by the Police and so conducted their own search after reporting them missing. Smallman’s own boyfriend found the bodies of the two women during this search.
When asked about the Police response to the missing report of her daughters, Ms Smallman said: “I knew instantly why they didn’t care. They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was. A Black woman who lives on a council estate.”
In an interview with the Guardian, founder of Sistah Space, a London Based domestic violence charity for those of African and Caribbean heritage, Ngozi Fulani gave mention to these differing attitudes from the Police, she stated women in her care have “been asked by police, ‘if you were slapped where is the mark on your face?’ – but we don’t bruise like Caucasian women,” she also added that some have been told, “you are a tough Caribbean woman, I don’t think anyone would mess with you.”
It is absolutely no coincidence that Sarah Everard who was a cis, white woman with blonde hair has received so much coverage by the press. This is also the reason so many women in the public sphere have related to this case. In a world where white is the ‘normal’ and Black and Brown is the ‘other’, we need to be acutely aware of the reasons behind why Sarah’s case has had this widespread effect.
Being aware of this privilege that white women inherently hold, from treatment by the Police to representation in the media is not enough, however. That privilege needs to be used to raise awareness for cases of Black and Brown women who wouldn’t get the same treatment or exposure.
In an open letter “to white women”, representatives of EVAW said: “Racism in the violence against women and girls movement is not the problem of Black and minoritized women. It affects them, but it is not their problem. It is our problem as white women.”
Similarly, the treatment of missing and murdered trans women, particularly those who are Women of Colour is a devastating side effect of this ‘normal’ vs ‘other’ dichotomy. From the recent proposed reform to the Gender Recognition Act, to restricting young people’s access to Hormone Replacement Therapy, it has become clear that our society is rife with systemic transphobic thinking and beliefs.
These beliefs extend to Police, public and media treatment of trans women who have gone missing or been victims of violence against women
In 2018 a trans woman, Naomi Hersi was found violently murdered by a man who specifically targeted her because she was trans. This case barely appeared in popular media, only being discussed and shared heavily in LGBTQ+ communities and groups.
Even within the sector working to prevent violence against women and girls, there are reports of this same transphobia. For gal-dem magazine, Moya Lothian McLean reports on what she calls ‘transmisogny’ within this sector. McLean quotes a protected source on working for one of these organisations and their experience of trying to enact change from within.
Commenting on the push back from senior members of the organisation the protected source said: “They say, ‘Oh, men will just call up pretending to be women, and saying that they’re trans to get into the space to enact harm’.” This demonstrates the far-reaching nature of these toxic beliefs many people in the UK have towards trans women and marginalised genders; endangering these people further.
The experience of being exposed to stories of abuse and trauma, this past week for many trans women, femme non-binary folk and even trans men who once presented as women must be one of familiarity and frustration, having adverse effects on mental wellbeing.
Despite the fact that trans women and marginalised genders are two times more likely to be victims of violent crime than cis people, according to the Office for National Statistics, awareness of this and advocating for the safety of trans women and marginalised genders is sadly, but unsurprisingly lacking in popular media and by Police forces.
This cultural neglect forces those who are already marginalised by society, into even more marginalised states of being. This alone is traumatising enough but when compared in stark contrast with Sarah Everard’s case, the barely healed wounds from last year and all the years before surely will have reopened.
It is hugely important to acknowledge this experience for women, non-binary folk and marginalised genders and how it impacts mental health. Not only so we can hopefully use this horrific situation to improve how we talk around the topic of violence towards women, but also because, with social media being as prevalent as it is; it is all too easy to get caught up in the impulse to defend one’s case by sharing trauma.
This re-telling of old or recent traumas can really take its toll on mental wellbeing. Being aware of how a civil movement such as this one, can be re-traumatising and how being a part of it can also be re-victimising can allow us to safeguard our own mental health and those at risk around us. Take breaks from social media, find nourishment, recharge and then enter back into the conversation when and if necessary.
A lesson to be learnt from this by the Police, media and the public at large is that the responsibility for making our streets safe from violence against women and those of marginalised genders should never be on those that are the victims of that violence but on the systems and people that hold the violence in place.