There were fifteen years between the murders of Emma Caldwell and Louise Aitchison but they were connected by a thread of failure: to either protect women from violent men or to prosecute those men.
Sixteen years after Emma’s death no one has been convicted despite a new investigation launched six years ago when a forgotten suspect – a man interviewed six times by police, who had a violent temper and a history of assaulting women, who was said to be obsessed with her, and who directed detectives to the forest where her body was found – was revealed by a newspaper.
After the death of Louise, police did not have to search for her killer. She phoned them to ask for help getting her partner out of her home hours before he killed her. Officers attended but that’s all they did; they left before he returned soon after, as he had promised to do, to commit murder.
Like so many other women before her Louise called for help but was not heard. We are not listened to or believed by the institutions supposed to protect us.
In 1982, a fly-on-the-wall documentary called Police aired on the BBC, documenting the working lives of officers at Reading police station. In one episode, a woman claiming to have been raped was dismissed out of hand by officers.
The footage was later used in an instructional video showing police how not to behave and it was considered a watershed moment in changing how rape cases were handled.
We have had many such “watersheds” since.
Nearly 40 years on these attitudes still seem deeply entrenched. The dismissal of women’s fears and allegations may not be as explicit, might not be so easy to hear, but the lack of progress says it all. Official inaction speaks volumes and there is only bureaucratic and judicial inertia where women’s safety is concerned. On average, a woman in the UK is killed by a man every three days. There were 60,641 recorded incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland two years ago, with the majority of victims being women.
Three in five Scottish women have experienced sexual assault. I’m one of them.
I didn’t report what happened to me and I’m far from alone. We hear stories of women reliving their trauma only to be turned away for not having sufficient evidence. Victims with courage enough to report being assaulted and brave enough to give evidence are allowed to be treated like suspects in the witness stand. Conviction rates are shamefully low.
We read comments below articles about Sarah Everard asking why she walked home alone, as though she was complicit in her own death. We are shamed and we are blamed for the actions of violent and abusive men.
The devastating truth for many women is this: saying something very often leads to the same result as saying nothing at all because the criminal justice system is broken.
Apologies from police and prosecutors and pledges of action by justice ministers mean nothing if they are not backed by effective, immediate action.
We need an easier reporting process for abuse survivors, we need trauma-trained officers, we need carefully designed court procedures that reflect the complexities inherent in crimes against women and we need better education for children around the issues of misogyny, violence and consent.
How many more women must die before we get what we need?
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