(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Lockdown has fostered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women

In the wake of Sarah Everard’s death, why has no one acknowledged that Lockdown has provided the ideal conditions for which violence against women can thrive?

Why was Sarah Everard walking such a long distance alone at night? Why did a predator think that he could get away with abducting her from a main road in central London? Why was there no one around to stop him?

These are the obvious questions that most journalists have neglected to ask. The answers are, of course, that there was no place for Sarah and her friends to meet that wasn’t miles away; the use of public transportation was officially discouraged; shops were closed, everyone was at home, and the streets were deserted. So accustomed are we to this bleak reality that we have failed to acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances that contributed to Sarah’s death.

Most of the reports of Sarah’s journey emphasise, with astonishment, that she was walking through “some of the capital’s most populated, brightly-lit, and well-walked parts”, traversed by hundreds of women every day. But these areas were unusually quiet on the night that Sarah disappeared. A journey that should have been safe was made perilous by the absence of people.

Violent men have taken advantage of Lockdown to prey upon women

This tragic, horrific murder has been blamed on many things: rampant misogyny, a corrupt police force, and ambiguous structural failings. “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” is the #MeToo slogan unsheathed in Reclaim These Streets protests. The fact is: this is surprising. It is absolutely shocking. Nothing like this has happened in the UK in recent memory, and the chances of being abducted from a main road by a stranger are vanishingly small. Extremely generalised and misguided accusations have obscured the awful truth: violent men have taken advantage of Lockdown to prey upon women.

The UN has called this the “Shadow Pandemic”. Violence against women, in every form, has intensified since the beginning of the pandemic. Every single one of the exacerbating factors listed in their study is the result of Lockdown. Isolation with abusers, restrictions upon movement, and deserted public spaces have all placed women in grave danger. In the first month of the pandemic, the number of calls to National Abuse Hotline in the UK shot up by 65 per cent, and calls to the Refuge helpline for victims by 120 per cent. Tens of thousands of women have been added to an already long list of victims of domestic abuse. Women are trapped in their homes, exposed in the streets, and nothing will measurably improve until we end their cruel confinement.

Even in comfortable homes, Lockdown has placed crippling burdens upon women. Women have taken on most of the responsibility for childcare and chores, posing a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”, according to the UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia. Unpaid and often unappreciated hours of domestic work have increased by the millions. What’s worse is that many women will never be returning to work: in September alone in the US, around 865,000 women dropped out of the work force compared to 200,000 men, a rise that Bhatia says is almost certainly due to increased pressures at home. The extremely stressful task of running a home during Lockdown, unfairly assigned to women on the basis of outdated gender norms, has contributed to a crisis in women’s mental health around the world.

No amount of education could root out the evil that this murderer acted upon

Why is it that so many protestors and journalists, admirably determined to improve the lives of women, have completely ignored one of the greatest and most immediate threats to women in this country? In a recent article in Al Jazeera, Catherine Rottenberg, a professor at the University of Nottingham, somehow managed to interpret all of the UN’s harrowing statistics about the suffering of women in Lockdown as a confirmation that “misogyny, systematic male entitlement, and violence against women are thriving”, without acknowledging that Lockdown itself has given violence the ideal environment in which to thrive. Protesters at the vigil for Sarah Everard turned on the police with signs declaring “police are the problem”. But why were there no signs protesting the severe restrictions the police enforce, given that this is the single biggest factor in the rise of violence against women in the past year?

This strange refusal to acknowledge a glaring problem in the lives of women is likely due to the modern impulse to blame systems, not circumstances. The emphasis has been on sexual education, cultural reprogramming, and defunding the institutions of law enforcement, rather than on lifting the restrictions that have trapped women within the very cycles of violence such reforms are intended to address. Protesters have directed their anger toward systematic misogyny and gender-based violence, and not at the laws which have confined women in abusive homes and made it dangerous for them to go outside. This is the problem with sweeping condemnations of “the system”: they vainly draw attention to problems that exist in the abstract, while failing to address real and urgent problems that we can solve right now.

We have lost sight of the sickening evil of one man and the circumstances that facilitated his crime

There is an absurd notion making the rounds on social media that this awful crime might have been prevented if men were educated properly. Sarah Hewitt suggests that we ought to be “taking boys and men aside and teaching them not to harass, assault or murder us”. I don’t think that any amount of education could root out the evil that this murderer acted upon. The kind of men who want to harm women will do so if given the opportunity, and Lockdown has provided it. According to an article in The Lancet, “mandatory lockdown orders may have taken minor offenders and placed them into situations where there is rampant opportunity for intimate partner violence, serious batteries, and homicides.”

A well-meaning but naïve cohort of men are also asking women what they can do to make them “feel safer”. A Londoner named Stuart Edwards was met with approval on Twitter when he asked, “Aside from giving as much space as possible on quieter streets and keeping face visible, is there anything else men can reasonably do to reduce the anxiety/spook factor?” This is a kind and thoughtful gesture; but even if every good man in the world crossed the street to make a woman feel more comfortable, this would not prevent bad men from stalking, harassing, and assaulting women, knowing full well what they were doing.

It is a good thing that people are trying to shift the focus onto men and change men’s behaviour rather than women’s. It is awful to be told I can’t go out alone at night, and like many women I am outraged by any implication that it would somehow be my fault if anything bad were to happen. But proposals for a “Curfew for Men” completely miss the point. Predators quite obviously have no concern for the law, and all this policy would do is keep decent, law-abiding men indoors. If anything, we need more good men and women on the streets. The more people there are to witness, report, or actually stop violence against women, the better.

The government has failed to protect women by turning cities into ghost towns and homes into prisons

Somehow, in the politicisation of Sarah’s death, we have lost sight of the sickening evil of one man and the circumstances that facilitated his crime. The fact is, there are unfathomably terrible people in this world who will always evade institutional change. No amount of cultural reprogramming can change the minds of people hell-bent on destroying lives. But we can and must ensure that our cities are safe, and that our laws protect innocent people. The government has clearly failed to protect women by turning cities into ghost towns, and homes into prisons. We are safer when we are looking out for one another. We are safer when shop lights are on, hotels are open, and safe houses and charities are fully operating. There may be a virus lurking outside, but violence creeps behind closed doors.

It was deeply moving to see people in London emerge from their homes to bring flowers to Clapham Common and mourn the heartbreaking loss of Sarah Everard. Finally, humanity shone through the cracks of a desolate and weary country. The irony is that if we had had the courage to come together in defiance of inhumane restrictions earlier, Sarah might not have been alone on that terrible night.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover