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Keeping Women Alive

The story of Sarah Everard’s abduction, rape and brutal murder at the hands of a serving police officer is the latest horrendous episode in the narrative of men learning to relate non-abusively, even (what a thought!) respectfully to women. An endemic culture of misogyny in the Metropolitan Police Force has been uncovered, including lurid accounts of lewd sexist comments and pictures exchanged in police WhatsApp groups


Like the stories of Stephen Lawrence or George Floyd, the Sarah Everard narrative is clearly a symptom of a wider disease. Victims’ commissioner, Dame Vera Baird reports that out of over 800 allegations of domestic abuse against police officers in the past five years only 43 cases were prosecuted. ‘Police don’t recognise the problem in their own ranks,,’ she says, ‘let alone treat it with the seriousness it requires’.


Last Sunday’s Observer newspaper pictured the 81 women who have been killed in the last 28 weeks. It calls for ‘femicide’ to be recognised as a crime equal to terrorism. Clearly, it must be a priority for violence against half the population to be taken more seriously in a predominantly male police force. Women need to know that when they report violence or rape or harassment, that, at the very least, they have the law on their side in a way that it is not at present. But strengthening the law alone cannot solve this problem. Laws alone cannot create the place that campaigners describe ‘where women can speak freely and safely’.


As I read these horrific reports, I thought about how difficult it is, not only for women but for less powerful people in our society and many of its institutions and groupings to speak ‘freely and safely’. News reports regularly include accounts of women, people of colour, children and LGBTQ+ people who find themselves unheard. We all know about employees not being heard by their bosses, citizens by their government, patients by their doctors and certainly church members by their leaders. In church cultures where misogyny is theologically justified by (some not all!) power-hungry men, I and many other women have paid the penalty of trying to speak ‘freely and safely’.


Clearly the more power you have, the more responsibility you have for creating cultures where the less powerful people can be heard. Leaders in the police force and all other groups and institutions have much to do. They need to listen to some home truths. They need to reflect, and to grow in self-knowledge about unconscious attitudes and behaviours - a painful business. They need to learn listening skills.


But powerful people are not going to give up their abusive habits without a challenge. And if we make the creation of an improved culture the responsibility of men and other powerful people, we are perpetuating the picture of women as victims.


Women and all of us who find ourselves trying to make ourselves heard need to grow too. We must keep learning the skills of speaking ‘truth to power’.


My 11-year old granddaughter recently reported a situation at her new school. The boy sitting next to her in one of her classes is fidgeting and shifting around all the time and makes it difficult for her to concentrate. ‘He seems to have ADHD’, she said.


Cultures where the least powerful learn to speak are built in our response to such situations. How should she handle this as one of the youngest people in her school? What might she do and say? How could we cultivate in her the confidence to speak up? How could we help her acquire the wisdom for such a situation – about timing, language, tone of voice?


Her parents have already done a great job in teaching her to speak for herself – and she uses those skills to stand up to them sometimes! But that’s the whole point. We need to start teaching these skills when boys and girls are very young. And the best way to do it is by modelling such dialogues in our families. As we explore feelings on both sides, the less powerful people learn the wisdom and bravery to speak ‘freely and safely’. People can learn to share their experience appropriately, to explore ideas, ask questions.


Maybe it's too tall an order. It’s so much easier to build hierarchies than to learn to dialogue. But if we don’t learn to do it, on a much wider scale, stories like Sarah Everard’s will get more common.




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