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In response to the killing of Sabina Nessa, are we really 'safe on the streets'?

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

As we grieve the loss of another woman on our streets, the message we've received today is that, in spite of mounting evidence and criticism, we are safe. Indeed violence against women and girls (VAWG) is being deemed as a 'shadow pandemic', with ever-increasing cries that more must be done. The VAWG strategy was refreshed in July 2021, after Home Secretary Priti Patel reopened a 'Call for Evidence' on the experiences of women and girls in the UK after the tragic murder of Sarah Everard. A new strategy was produced, and yet still we are no further forward in our battle.

Yesterday, speaking from the crime scene of the murder of Sabina Nessa, DCS Trevor Lawry made luke-warm, ill-advised assurances that 'the streets are safe for women', and as a woman, a rape survivor, therapist and advocate for women and girls, I disagree. Both in the news and in my office, the message that I receive is that we are, in fact, far from it.

While I understand the need to be seen to be making things safe and provide assurance, sadly, in this instance that assurance is tone deaf. Claiming that we're safe on the streets isn't only incorrect, it's flat out gaslighting. It undermines what, on a felt level, women all over the UK and beyond fundamentally know to be true. We are not safe. The reality is, while there may be the best of intention to commit to keeping us safe, the current picture tells a different story. Time and again, the evidence points to the fact that we are anything but safe. We're at risk travelling to and from work. We're at risk on public transport. We're at risk as we walk a five-minute journey to meet our friends.

And, when the unthinkable happens, we are bombarded endlessly, suffocatingly, with the narrative that we could've done more. We should've kept ourselves safer. Walk home in pairs, where possible with a male. Watch what you wear. Be careful not to draw attention to yourself. Carry a rape alarm, pepper spray, ring a friend en route, keep your keys between your fingers, let someone know your ETA. Pretend to taxi drivers you don't live alone, tell them your boyfriend is waiting for you at home. Don't go out at night, or in wooded areas, or when it's dark, or in the park. But we can't guarantee you're safe in daylight either. And while we hold vigils and create support groups and amend our behaviour to beyond an inch of our lives, still it's not enough. Still we are not safe. So, DCS Lawry, forgive me for refuting your claim that we aren't at risk on the streets.

And the most painful part of this whole situation is that while it's undeniable that the streets aren't safe, we aren't safe at home either. Statistically, in fact, home is the most dangerous place for women. For all of the abhorrent, indescribable, blood-curdling tragedies we hear of happening in public, infinitely more are happening behind closed doors.

Women are 16 times more likely to be killed by an ex-partner or partner than men. In the cases of violent or sexual assaults, women knew their attackers in 92% of cases. 1.6 million women experienced domestic violence in England and Wales in 2020, a figure that increased during lockdown and the Euros. Women are twice as likely to be stalked than men, 9 out of 10 women experience sexual harassment, and one in four report being the victim of sexual assault or rape. Are we held by the justice system when this happens? The answer is no. Of 139,000 incidences of rape that occurred in 2020, 2,100 were prosecuted and only 1,439 were convicted. Not. Good. Enough.

These figures are bleak, and contribute not only to direct victims such as those killed or attacked, but to a generally lower sense of wellness among women due to being constantly in a heightened state of awareness compared to male counterparts.

In their book 'Burnout: Solving Your Stress Cycle', the Nagoski sisters convincingly outline the divergence in physical symptoms such as digestive issues, chronic illnesses and autoimmune disease in women vs men, as we constantly carry a burden that men will never need to consider.

The 'are you home?' texts, the head down as we walk past a building site, the 'sorry I've got a boyfriend' in the face of endless advances, even when it isn't true. Women pay two-fold: both on an overt macro-level, as was devastatingly the case with Sabina Nessa; and in covert ways too, as a result of an endless stream of micro-aggressions punctuated with 'scares' and 'near misses' that keep us constantly on guard. Every woman reading this will understand that sentiment, and will have their own stories of things that "don't really count as assault, does it" and "could've been so much worse".

And it would be grossly amiss to ignore the disparity in coverage when the female victim is a woman of colour. Rightly so the Sarah Everard case gained huge coverage across the UK. When police appealed for information to help find Sabina Nessa's killer, the announcement of the new Strictly line up got more coverage. This has to stop.

Women of colour are also less likely to report an assault to police, less likely to access support, and less likely to get a conviction in court. Indeed BAME women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health issue and less likely to receive the support they need, not least as a result of services grossly unequipped to understand cultural intricacies in presentation.

The feeling of risk for women is relentless and the picture does not seem to be improving. It's time to pay more than tokenistic lip service to commitment to end violence against women and girls, taking the onus off women to make themselves safer and placing it firmly on men to take responsibility, and the government to take action.

Laura Currer Founder of Sparkle Chair of the National SAAS SPV Advisory Group BA (Hons) MSc, Trainee Psychotherapist, UKATA and UKCP Registered (Student)

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