“I was in Year 5 when it first happened. You would not think that your maternal grandfather would make you sit on his lap whilst watching television and get you to stroke him. But he did,” disclosed Snehal Desai*. “I was 10-years-old. I didn’t know how to react and excused myself the first chance I got. It happened again, a few times. I don’t remember the count. But I started avoiding him and tried my best to never stay alone with him in a room. I wanted to confide to my mum but he was my maternal grandfather and she would never believe me and I did not have any evidence to show for it.”
Snehal’s story is just at the tip of the iceberg. Sarah Everard’s mysterious disappearance and untimely demise has once again exposed the systemic failures, challenged authorities and confronted society about gender violence and women’s safety even in a progressive country such as the UK. If social media metrics, widespread nationwide protests and vigils despite an on-going pandemic are to be factored then the incident is likely to go down in British history as the second wave of the #MeToo movement. But what has the hashtag really changed if women still fear “walking home” alone at night? What of the silent sufferers of domestic violence, honour-based killings and sexual abuse? The minority women, particularly Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi daughters who are battling double marginalisation as they fear both the community and the police authorities in reporting any such mishaps? Charity workers, lawyers and politicians ask why are they left at the sidelines of the conversation?
#MeToo movement needs to reach South Asian households
“I feel that the mainstream media is not profiling enough stories of minority women. It also may be the case that there are real challenges for minority women in coming forward and sharing their stories. I was one of those few women who spoke out against sexual harassment with regards to the Lord Lester case in the House of Lords. But there wasn’t enough support in the papers about the courage it took for me to complain. The debate around the subject for me as a minority woman was hardly even covered by the national media.
“The MeToo movement needs to reach the South Asian families because we need to recognise the greater barriers and challenges in reporting about these incidents. Even if they want to share their stories anonymously, these are the voices that we are not hearing enough and ones that we need to hear more of,” said Jasvinder Sanghera CBE in an exclusive interview with Asian Voice.
In 2017, a report by the privileges and conduct committee upheld a complaint of sexual harassment against Lord Lester. The complaint claimed that Lord Lester "had sexually harassed the complainant (Jasvinder Sanghera), had offered her a corrupt inducement to have sexual relations with her and had warned her of unspecified consequences if she did not accept his offer". The 82-year-old peer of Herne Hill who was consequently suspended from Liberal Democrats resigned from the House of Lords in December 2018. It had taken 12 years for Jasvinder, an ardent campaigner against forced marriages, to step forward and report the incident at the heights of the #MeToo movement. At a time when Hollywood female actresses first started reporting against misogyny and sexual abuse in the industry. Nearly three years later has anything changed today?
96% of women don’t report incidents of sexual abuse
According to the latest YouGov survey of more than 1,000 women, seen exclusively by the Guardian, there is a damning lack of faith in the UK authorities’ desire and ability to deal with sexual harassment – 96% of respondents did not report incidents, with 45% saying it would not change anything.
Concerned about the lack of a real strategy in addressing the core issues, Jasvinder said, “For me, this is a watershed moment. We need to act upon the grief of both men and women. I am concerned that such incidents happen and people come forward but there is an absolute knee-jerk reaction from the government in their inconsistent responses. I would like to see a real plan of action in terms of embedded change and a strategy that can move this forward.
“I am a mother of two daughters and all three of us at some point have experienced some form of sexual harassment and not felt safe. I hope that these stories continue to inform policy and practice. I hope that schools mandatorily raise awareness around healthy relationships. We need a gamechanger of an attitude towards women and it needs to start in schools.”
But the issue has transcended beyond policy and into implementation and administration. Metropolitan Police Chief Dame Cressida Dick has refused to quit amid widespread outrage over officers manhandling women who were mourning the killing of Sarah Everard. She has been publicly rebuked by the home secretary, Priti Patel, and London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, for providing an unsatisfactory explanation of why police broke up a vigil for Everard in London’s Clapham Common on Saturday. Demonstrators further gathered on Sunday to protest against police mishandlings as they marched from the Met headquarters in London to Parliament Square. This time, police stayed back from the crowds and allowed speeches and a vigil to go ahead.
Police brutality is a systemic problem
Commenting on the police mishandlings, Barrister Zehrah Hasan, said, “Cressida Dick has consistently refused to acknowledge institutional racism in her force and justified the use of oppressive tactics, such as stop and search. So, it comes as no surprise that she would defend this violence in the same way she did with the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Our Legal Observers, particularly those who are Black or Brown, are also routinely disproportionately subjected to police violence and intimidation at protests. Police brutality is a systemic problem and so no amount of police ‘reform’ or deference to those in authority will change this.
“Black Protest Legal Support condemns the police’s continued, institutional violence against protesters. Our Legal Observers witnessed police brutality at the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common last weekend, which was emboldened by the police’s reliance on Covid-19 regulations.
“Black, Brown and Racialised groups are disproportionately subject to police violence - on the streets, in police stations, and in prisons. The police are five times more likely to use force against Black people. Nearly one in three incidents involving the use of force are against a Black, Brown or Racialised person. From the Mangrove protest in 1970 to the Black People’s Day of Action in 1981 to the Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) protests in 2020, the police have always threatened, intimidated and physically harmed Black protesters who have mobilised for racial justice.”
‘Project Vigilant’: Plainclothes officers to patrol bars
Following a meeting of the Criminal Justice Taskforce, chaired by the Prime Minister, the Government is taking immediate steps to provide further reassurance for women. This includes doubling the size of the Safer Streets fund, which provides neighbourhood measures such as better lighting and CCTV. Funding for local projects is raised to £45million. The Government will also roll-out pilots of ‘Project Vigilant’ across the country. This is an international award winning-approach taken by Thames Valley Police where both uniformed and plainclothes officers identify predatory and suspicious offenders in the nighttime economy. This can involve officers attending areas around clubs and bars undercover to better ensure women are safe in these locations, and increased patrols as people leave at closing time. But what about women like Snehal who are prey to abuse in their own homes?
Over the years, Snehal became a recluse. Locking herself in her East London apartment and barely making friends. Her teachers were concerned about her self-imposed isolation but her family never realized something was amiss because her academic performance hardly suffered. It was at University that Snehal’s friend, having himself suffered sexual abuse, encouraged her to see a therapist. She enrolled with the University’s Mental Health support network and gradually with the Lifetime NHS mental health care for sexual assault victims. Her parents are still unaware of the incident.
Speaking about Sarah Everard’s disappearance and untimely death, she said, “It is true, isn’t it. It could have been you. It could have been me. It could have been any of us. And it is disgusting that it takes the media, the government, and the police authorities to take these instances seriously only when one of us dies. But even so, have we addressed the root causes?
“No matter how shaken am I, do I have the courage to walk up to my mother and tell her about what happened with me? No. Because I know she still won’t believe me. I know she will tell me it was all in my head. Worse yet, I know she will ask me why I didn’t confide in her all these years ago when it had first happened. My reasons haven’t changed. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to abuse one.”
(Snehal’s name has been changed on the condition of anonymity.)