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  • Laura Battisti

The UK Police System and Violence Against Women

Trigger warning: this piece deals with sensitive topics such as sexual harassment, violence against women and murder. Please feel free to skip if you find any of these topics triggering.

In recent years, the UK has been affected by a series of events of violence against women, in particular femicides.

The UK Police and Violence Against Women: Sarah Everard

In June 2020, two sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were stabbed to death. In March 2021, the killing of Sarah Everard took place and, just 6 months later, the murder of Sabina Nessa was reported. Sadly, all of these horrible crimes have one rather obvious thing in common: they are all women.

What they also have in common, and what is arguably less apparent, is that they are all victims of a society still steeped in misogyny which does not prioritise the public safety of women. Moreover, these murders also show a deep systemic problem with the UK police system and their failure to provide safe environments both inside and outside their police stations.

Are UK streets safe for women?

The sad reality is that all evidence points to public spaces being unsafe for women. In fact, a report published by UN Women UK in March 2021 states that 71% of women have already experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces. This number increases to 86% when looking at women aged 18-24. Sexual harassment indicates a propensity to violence and disrespect towards women because of their gender, and how they are often perceived in society as weak and objectifiable. Let’s have a look at what the statistics have to say.

"86% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces"

A survey conducted by Sky News in collaboration with YouGov in October 2021 asked 1,657 British adults about their perceived street safety, and the results were telling. When asked if they felt safe when walking the streets alone at night, 26% of males answered that they’d feel unsafe. In comparison, more than half of the female respondents claimed that they would feel completely unsafe in this scenario.

The same question about walking streets alone during the day gave more balanced results, but female respondents still felt more unsafe by a considerable 10% (Men: 13%, Women: 23%). This suggests that Britain’s streets are not currently designed to make women feel comfortable or safe. Interestingly enough, the same survey showed that both men and women trust the police force fully, with women showcasing even greater trust in them than men (Men: 61%; Women: 65%).

This is interesting because it does seem to be contradictory. Women do not feel safe in the streets, the spaces the police force is supposed to protect and make safer. Yet, they trust police officers. Moreover, there have been many accounts of misogyny within the UK police force by female police officers, most notably Susannah Fish, former chief constable of Nottinghamshire police.

Susannah Fish, misogyny in the UK police force
Former Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police, Susannah Fish

What is misogyny? What does it have to do with the UK police system?

Misogyny and sexism are interlinked as terms. However, while sexism describesthe rules and expectations put into place to uphold a patriarchal system’, misogyny is ‘the law enforcement branch of sexism or the actions taken to ensure that the rules and expectations dictated through sexism are being followed.’ A typical misogynist stance, for example, is blaming women for getting sexually harassed because of their ‘seductive’ behaviour or dress choice.

Misogynist views infiltrate our entire society and therefore, sadly, also our police force. In fact, Susannah Fish, who we mentioned earlier, states that policing is ‘institutionally misogynistic’. In a report on the UK police system, The Guardian claims that the UK police has a ‘sexist canteen culture’, in which women are belittled and called derogatory names based on outdated gender ideals. In this sexist culture, women are seen as inferior to men and thus not taken as seriously as their male counterparts when reporting crimes. As a consequence, instances of sexual harassment go unreported because women fear not being taken seriously enough and being ridiculed. Indeed, of the 97% of women in the UK who say that they have been sexually harassed at least once in their life, only a tiny proportion actually reported it to police.

Especially since the killing of Sarah Everard, the UK police force has made attempts to ‘de-misogynise’ the force with strategies such as the Tackling Violence against Women & Girls or the creation of the new online tool Street Safe which enables people to anonymously tell the police about unsafe public spaces. Although this is a start, there is still a long way to go. Many argue that the most important step would be to recognise misogyny as a hate crime.

What is a hate crime? Should misogyny be listed as one?

To properly explain why recognising misogyny as a hate crime might be a good idea, we first need to establish the exact definition of a hate crime.

According to the UK Parliament, the term hate crime ‘is used to describe a range of criminal behaviour that a victim or other person perceives to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards a person’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity’. These aspects of a person’s identity are referred to as ‘protected characteristics.’ Therefore, any crime against a protected characteristic is covered under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and section 66 of the Sentencing Act 2010.

While sexual harassment is also a crime, it is often not taken seriously enough due to sexist views within the police force. Many police officers working in said ‘sexist canteen culture’ tend to display sexist behaviours towards women, such as victim-blaming and the belittling of personal experiences. They partake in a culture of internalised misogyny, which often leads to police officers – usually but not exclusively policemen – making women feel invalidated in their experiences. Thus, a lot of women refrain from reporting sexual harassment and assault. Figures such as Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has been publicly campaigning for misogyny to become a hate crime since 2018, argue that women would be more willing to report sexual assaults and harassments if they were classified as hate crimes. In fact, Nottinghamshire Constabulary already started reporting sexual harassment such as wolf-whistling and catcalling as hate crimes in 2016. After this change took place, over 30 cases of misogynistic-motivated incidents were reported in just five months, and 15 other forces are now looking to follow this example.

Following Stella Creasy’s campaigning to make misogyny a hate crime, the Law Commission – a statutory independent body that keeps the laws of England and Wales under review and recommend reforms when needed - announced it would review the category of hate crime and consider making sex and gender a ‘protected characteristic’. Then, in September 2020 they called for a consultation seeking to gather input and responses on a report they published in March 2019. However, after a review of the consultation, the Law Commission decided to advise against including sex and gender into the category of ‘protected characteristics’, because ‘it would be ineffective at protecting women and girls and in some cases, counterproductive.’ They claimed that that it would lead to an increased difficulty of secure prosecutions and the creation of unhelpful hierarchies of victims, since it constructs certain victims as ‘deserving of resources such as sympathy, support and outside intervention to redress their suffering’, and thus makes other victims seem less important.

This outcome did not sit well with many women’s organisations and activists. For example, The Fawcett Society, together with 16 other supporters, have issued a statement claiming that the Law Commission’s analysis is faulty and ‘not only fails to recognise how hatred drives crimes against women’, but also that ‘they have offered no clear alternative policies to help address widespread concerns about the lack of action by the criminal justice system.’ It is now for the UK government to decide whether making misogyny a hate crime is an efficient way to tackle the ever-rising violence against women in this country.

Nonetheless, it seems like most people, as shown in a study conducted by Nottingham Trent University in 2018, do believe that making misogyny a hate crime is a good way to tackle violence against women. It’s also important to mention that 75.3% of study participants were female and therefore part of the group affected by misogyny.

While it’s now up to the UK government to properly review making misogyny a hate crime, it seems like women – the most affected group– are in favour of this legislative change. It’s hoped that this will be considered in the government’s decision, as it might increase reporting of sexual harassment and assault and consequently make women feel safer, taken more seriously and also more protected by the UK police system.

For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.

Edited by Olena Strzelbicka

Researched by Larisa Cuturean

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