It’s half a century since Peter Sutcliffe stalked the streets. Are women any safer?

Emily Jackson was the second of the 13 women that the lorry driver Peter Sutcliffe was convicted of killing during a five-year period that ended in 1981. The Long Shadow, a seven-part series that began on ITV on Monday, focuses on his victims.

It begins with the murder of Wilma McCann, 28, in 1975, and the circumstances in which Jackson, 42, (a harrowing portrayal by Katherine Kelly) began to sell herself on the street for a fiver a time. Her husband, Sidney, was out of a job, her daughter needed a bridesmaid’s outfit, Christmas was coming. Jobs were scarce, a Labour government had cut benefits and instigated wage restraint. Neighbours viewed those on the dole as “scroungers”. Jackson wanted to look after her family and save face. She needed money. In 1976, she was stabbed 52 times by Sutcliffe.

His actions eventually left 23 children motherless. The hunt for the so-called Yorkshire Ripper peeled back the public face of the police and revealed ugly, deep-seated misogyny shared by many. “Good women” shouldn’t be surprised at what happened to them if they went out after dark, wore short skirts, and, in public, drank more than two Babychams. Prostitutes were deemed slags and deserved what they got. A year after Jackson was killed, Mr Justice Slynn released a guardsman who had sadistically raped a 17-year-old, telling the perpetrator that he “had allowed his enthusiasm for sex to get the better of him”. So, how far have we come?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of misogyny is “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women”. During the decades since Sutcliffe was convicted, misogyny has been constrained largely as a result of women’s work. They have fought for legislation on discrimination, harassment, equality and the right not to be viewed as naked lumps of meat, “pin-ups”, in newspapers, ads and light entertainment.

A consensus has grown, supported by some men, on the need to respect the human rights of the female half of the population (even as pornography has flourished). And yet, still, 1.7 million women in England and Wales were victims of domestic abuse last year; the conviction rate for rape is less than 2%; more than half of girls say they experienced sexual harassment in school; a woman is killed by a man every 2.6 days; careers are stalled; inequality is embedded. Statistics that clearly demonstrate that, while it may not be all men, it isn’t just the work of a handful either. Why is that permitted?

Currently, paradoxically, while the public censure of individual figures such as Russell Brand, the puerile Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton, suspended from GB News, and Andrew Tate, his toxicity supported by social media, belatedly grows, it seems the more that other misogynists are again encouraged to emerge from the shadows to vocalise (and worse) their contempt for women under the banner of anti-wokery and “free speech”.

A year ago, Rishi Sunak said tackling violence against women and girls was a national emergency… He has a long way to go

A year ago, Rishi Sunak said that tackling violence against women and girls was “a national emergency”, and promised: “I will not stop until… women and girls can go about their daily lives feeling safe and secure.” He has a long way to go. The political will to effectively tackle violence and misogyny in all its manifestations is woefully lacking.

Last Monday, Women’s Aid published a report on routes to support for women and children. In 2022-23, there was a 22.2% shortfall in the number of refuges required in England. One in two women seeking help from community-based organisations had to be refused. Only 1% of refuges can take a wheelchair user; less than half can take a woman with two children. Only 11.7% of refuges would consider women with “no recourse to public funds” (an immigration condition attached to visas, preventing people from accessing state support).

This blatantly disregardswomen’s rights as citizens, undermines civic society and is a waste of taxpayers’ money. According to Women’s Aid, if the government invested at least £427m a year in services, there would be a saving of £23bn.

A seismic shift in government is required, as a manifesto for the 2024 general election supported by over 70 women’s organisations including Southall Black Sisters, Refuge and Imkaan now argues. Four out of five women don’t go to the police as a result of violence, millions of girls and women endure daily acts of misogyny because they must.

Dealing with both is not the remit of the Home Office, risk assessment and the criminal justice system alone; it requires a separate ministerial lead with power, a budget and a gendered approach (ie domestic abuse is disproportionately inflicted by men against women) and a “whole system” framework that encompasses health, social care, criminal and family justice, education, housing and a significant investment in prevention, relationship education and work with perpetrators.

Last Wednesday morning, the stabbing of 15-year-old Elianne Andam on her way to school was another brutal reminder that there is little protection from those boys and men who choose to belittle, abuse, control and take the lives of women; a long shadow indeed. It will stop – when we, the public, insist it must.

• Yvonne Roberts is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster

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