Argus title : Street girls need respect and our help
The usual pre-Christmas slaughter has begun – not of turkeys, but of women.
I enjoy Christmas time, but I also dread it, because I know it’s a time when sexual and domestic violence increases. I’ve come to expect a catalogue of press stories about ways in which women have been abused or killed. Usually the headlines are small and the stories short. Many people would miss them. Over the years, however, my no longer innocent eye has learned to locate them.
There are usually one or two spectacular acts of rape or murder which are so bizarre or gruesome as to attract larger headlines. One year, I remember, a report described how the killer had thrown his female victim’s dead or dying body over a bus shelter. I wondered why he bothered. I suppose it was yet another way of expressing contempt.This year’s tally differs only in the scale and speed of the slaughter and the fact that several murders have taken place within a confined geographical area. The bodies of 5 Suffolk prostitutes have been found within 10 days.
Misogynist men often beat, rape and kill prostitutes. Apart from wives and girlfriends they are the safest victims to choose. As a general rule, the law doesn’t take either group seriously so it’s relatively easy to get away with it.
Since 1992, 5 other women from Suffolk and Norfolk, 4 of them known prostitutes, have disappeared or been murdered. There have been no convictions. And throughout the country, at least 51 prostitutes have been murdered since 1990.
A report from the Economic and Social Research Council found that two thirds of sex workers had been attacked by clients and that 28% of street workers had experienced attempted rape.
It is a repeated complaint of prostitutes that police don’t pursue investigations as actively as they would if a non-prostitute was attacked. One Suffolk prostitute told the Guardian “Two women I know have recently reported attacks. One was hurt badly, but police did nothing. They told her there was no chance it would come to court. That attitude gets around and so other women don’t come forward. You have to ask how many women have reported violence and nothing was done.”
One of the most notorious aspects of the botched investigation into the so-called Yorkshire Ripper was the cavalier attitude the police took to the prostitute victims. It was only when other female victims – the police called them “innocent women” – started to be murdered that the pace of the investigation was stepped up.
Until recently the Suffolk police used ASBOs to control prostitutes’ access to the red light district. Then, after the first 2 killings, police issued a warning. Jacqui Cheer, the Assistant Chief Constable, told prostitutes “My message to you is simple – stay off the streets. If you are out alone at night you are putting yourself in danger”. As one prostitute said “The police make it sound like it’s our fault if we get attacked.”
Street prostitutes have little power over their own lives. Research indicates that many have been sexually abused in childhood and that the majority have experienced domestic violence. Many are compelled to work by violent pimps and partners, who also supply them with drugs.
Most, if not all of the dead women, were addicts. Like the majority of their colleagues, they were driven to street work to service their addictions. For the police to have asked such women to stop working and therefore cease drug use – at a time of bereavement and fear, without medical assistance, decent housing, effective protection and therapeutic and social supports – was the sheerest nonsense.
It is to the credit of local health, housing, benefit and advice agencies in Ipswich that the women most at risk are now being offered a co-ordinated service, to make it a realistic option to keep off the streets.
Prostitutes in other areas may be targeted by this killer. If the police are serious about safeguarding such women, they need to ensure that those at risk of violence from pimps or traffickers are offered refuge, and that addicts are given priority access to residential drug treatment.
These women should be treated as partners in the fight against misogynist violence, both because of their experience and the wealth of intelligence they hold about the UK’s most violent men.
The Suffolk murders are particularly stark examples of violence against women as women – though current press coverage does not acknowledge this. Instead journalists have speculated that the killer has a “vendetta” against prostitutes or some religious motivation.
A flurry of criminal profilers, usually lecturers in forensic psychology, have rushed to comment. Most suggest the killer has “no sexual motive”. None of them acknowledge that men who kill prostitutes are usually misogynists with histories of coercive behaviour toward women and girls.
Dr Ian Stephen, a consultant forensic psychologist, who has helped investigate other serial killings, made the extraordinary suggestion that far from targeting prostitutes because they are exceptionally vulnerable and accessible women, the killer might attack “other women” because he is “running out of prostitutes”.
Not for the first time I marvel at the capacity of criminal justice professionals, journalists and politicians to ignore sexism as a cause of violence against female victims.
If a serial killer brutally murdered 5 Black workers engaged in the same profession and living in the same city, over a period of a few days or weeks, it’s inconceivable that the possibility of racist motivation would be discounted. This would fly in the face of experience, sense and reason.
And yet in the case of violent crime against women, this is exactly what happens. And because of this mindset of denial, intelligence is not gathered as it should be, evidence is lost and potential convictions squandered.
Violence against women is a political can of worms that none of the political parties is willing to open – despite the necessity of winning women’s votes. There is a conspiracy of silence, a “gentleman’s agreement”, amongst politicians and media alike to keep the lid firmly closed.
In November this year the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Campaign – which includes amongst other organizations Amnesty International and the Fawcett Society – published a damning new report revealing that one year after the first independent assessment of government efforts to improve the response to violence against women in the UK, there is still a failure to ensure that women are safe from violent crime.
There are continuing high levels of violence against women in the UK, including domestic violence, forced marriage, so-called honour crimes, rape and sexual assault, trafficking for purposes of prostitution, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment and stalking. As a result, the EVAW Campaign has awarded the Government an overall score of just two out of ten, a small improvement on last year’s score of one out of ten.
Following last year’s assessment, Tony Blair responded by predicting this year’s report would reveal ‘considerable and sustained improvements’.
In fact, the new report finds little progress overall and indicates that where good work is being carried out it is being undermined by the lack of a coherent government strategy. It reveals a continuing lack of cross-department co-operation and information-sharing, inadequate funding and a lack of measurable targets.
The report found that many parts of government still perceive violence against women as limited to domestic violence, resulting in a failure to develop policies and provide resources for other forms of violence. Services for victims are seriously under-funded and there is a post-code lottery facing women who need support. Above all, the government has failed to address the issue of prevention, including the challenge of changing attitudes through the education system and elsewhere.
Despite this catalogue of failures, there was no criticism of the government’s record by David Cameron or indeed any other political leader. Once again, the government was let off the hook by politicians who want women’s votes, but are unwilling to address the issue of violence against them.
Professor Liz Kelly chairs the EVAW committee. In the context of the recent murders her comments on the Government’s record are telling: “Fundamentally the approach remains one of mopping up the problem once it has occurred, rather than working to ensure that women no longer experience violence. How many more women need to die before we see a more strategic approach?”
It is a very good question and one that should be put to all prospective parliamentary candidates.