Thirty-five years ago, on July 28 1986, Suzy Lamplugh vanished while working as an estate agent in London.
Her disappearance shocked the nation, and remains one of the most talked about missing person cases in Britain. Sadly, Suzy was never found; she was presumed murdered, and declared legally dead in 1993. Her devastated parents, Paul and Diana, set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust shortly after their daughter’s disappearance to ensure women’s personal safety was made a public policy priority. This will be the first significant ‘anniversary’ of Suzy’s disappearance that we mark without them both, Diana having sadly died in 2011 and Paul in 2018, both without knowing their daughter’s fate.
More than three decades later, we are living in a very different world to the one that Suzy went missing in. Back in 1986, we didn’t have specific offences for harassment, stalking, coercive control, forced marriage or financial abuse. In the past 30 years, we have seen the appointment of victim commissioners and domestic abuse commissioners, who now ensure that women’s voices are heard.
In many ways, we have come a long way. Recently, we have welcomed the Government’s Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy, which recognises the disproportionate number of female victims abused by male perpetrators. A raft of measures has been announced, including a new national policing lead on VAWG, two new transport champions, a duty on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment, and a new public awareness campaign tackling harmful misogynistic attitudes. But there is a lack of clarity as to how the strategy will involve all sectors – specifically with regard to stalking perpetrator management and support for stalking victims. We are also concerned that the proposals and funding outlined in the strategy are not sufficiently holistic, long-term or sustainable to bring about the much-needed systemic change to tackle all VAWG crimes.
There are still many milestones ahead of us. Although cases such as Suzy’s are rare, violence and misogyny against women still prevails on a daily basis. Just four months ago, 33-year-old Sarah Everard was snatched while she walked home from a friend’s house, and murdered. Other tragic murders of women including Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Julia James and Gracie Spinks, have highlighted how unsafe women can still be, on the streets and in our own homes.
These deaths and the outcry from the public are indicative of the amount of work that needs to be done. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of women killed each year has tended to range between 180 and 250 since the 1960s, and it’s clear that systemic changes need to happen to prevent more women from losing their lives. They include factors such as early education, a robust criminal justice system and the specialist training that accompanies it, multi-agency-perpetrator intervention programmes and ensuring there are appropriate specialist support services that meet the needs of victims.
The evidence suggests that Suzy may have been targeted by a stalker. It’s a crime that remains a huge problem; more than 90,000 incidents were recorded by forces in the year ending March 2021.
The birth of the internet has created a range of new crimes that involve using technology to track, and spy, on women. It has also given rise to an explosion of misogyny on social media platforms. Today, 100 per cent of the stalking cases we see on the National Stalking Helpline involve some sort of cyber, or digitally-enabled, component. The impact of these crimes is severe; victims feel a huge sense of trauma when a perpetrator invades every component of their private lives. Yet, all too often, these crimes aren’t treated with the same severity as those that happen offline. There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done to make sure the legislative framework adequately reflects the type of abuse that is taking place.
Throughout the pandemic, we found that the intensity and frequency with which women were experiencing stalking and harassment increased. Figures from Plan UK released in April last year showed that one in five girls (19 per cent) experienced street harassment during lockdown, despite the streets being emptier than ever. For victims, the trauma and isolation caused by stalking has been exacerbated as they haven’t been able to access their usual support networks in the lockdowns.
Despite all this, we have found that the percentage of reported cases being charged is falling year on year. Conviction rates for stalking are appallingly low, and those that are receiving custodial sentences are in their hundreds. The number of cases being reported and charged must increase to ensure that the public has confidence in our system and it’s why the Suzy Lamplugh Trust is calling for a national task group to examine this very issue.
Everyone has a right to be safe. For example, women shouldn’t have to assess their safety every time they get into a taxi. One of the trust’s long standing campaigns aims to ensure minimum licensing standards for taxis and private hire vehicles. Although we have come a long way since the 1990s – including introducing licensing in private hire vehicles in London – there is still no national legal framework for how licences are granted or renewed.
Suzy’s disappearance was pivotal in bringing these issues into the public consciousness. Over the years, there has been a shift in the narrative. Rather than asking what we as women should be doing, women are asking: what is the system doing to challenge this violence? Women are tired, they’re frustrated and, most importantly, they’re angry. Thirty-five years on from Suzy’s disappearance, we must continue to demand that this be the decade of change.
For more information please visit suzylamplugh.org