Systemic change is needed as vigil prepares to mourn death of another young woman

Death of Sabita Thanwani has sparked conversations about safety of women

Friday, 25th March — By Anna Lamche and Charlotte Chambers

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Forensic officers at Arbour House

The family of a young woman killed at her university halls have said they hope “lessons will be learnt” from her death, while a charity warned “systemic change” is needed to tackle violence against women and girls.

Sabita Thanwani, 19, was a first-year student at City University, studying psychology. She lived in the Arbour House accommodation block run by Unite Students, minutes from the university’s main campus in Clerkenwell.

Police were called in the early hours of Saturday and found Ms Thanwani had sustained serious neck injuries. Despite efforts to save her, Ms Thanwani was pronounced dead at the scene. A man who had been in a relationship with her has been charged with her murder.

Sabita Thanwani

Sabita Thanwani

City students paid tribute to Sabita by laying flowers at Arbour House, and are planning a “vigil against male violence” on Tuesday night. It will begin outside the university’s Tait building at 6 pm, with people encouraged to wear pink and bring flowers, candles and lanterns.

“Campus is very subdued – it feels very quiet at the moment,” said City student Rhian Soulsby-Cole, who is helping organise the vigil. “Now people are saying: ‘do you want me to walk with you somewhere?’

“People think that after [women’s campaigns] Everyone’s Invited, Me Too and Time’s Up, every­thing’s fixed now – but there’s still such a long way to go.”

In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, who was abducted by a police officer last year as she walked home from a friend’s, campaigns for improved women’s safety have grown louder and debates began over everything from dealing with small acts of casual sexism to stopping discrimination in the workplace and ending the violence.

In Islington, there have been “community safety walks” and calls for more police on the beat. While the details of Ms Thanwani’s death must now be kept for a courtroom, debates over safety for women in general were continuing this week.

Alison Bird, from Solace Women’s Aid charity, said: “It’s about systemic change. What we’re working towards is ending male violence, and changing the narrative from ‘we should change the streetlights’ towards a gender-informed approach at school.

“We need to stamp out those behaviours that might seem like banter but add fuel to the fire of violence against women and girls,” said Ms Bird. “Those micro-aggressions – ‘she can’t play football, she’s a girl’, ‘you run like a girl’, fat-shaming girls at school – are extremely dangerous and have a life-long impact.

“Our patriarchal society keeps objectification of women going, where people don’t intervene when sexual harassment is taking place.”

She added: “Those gateway behaviours have been seen as acceptable – until we get to the point where men realise they need to call out their mates and be allies to women, [nothing will change].”

While some women’s deaths turn into a national story and debates in parliament, others get less attention. The media’s reporting of violence against women can also be deeply unhelpful, Ms Bird said, adding: “The reaction to Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman’s deaths [in Brent] was far less [intense] than the response to the Sarah Everard murder.

“We want to ensure that women of colour are just as important in terms of any kind of harm that comes to them, that they’re seen as just as important.”

She added: “I’ve also seen cases where older women have been murdered by their sons and the press doesn’t even know about – they’re not interested in older women, who are seen as invisible. “What makes the headlines is younger women – it’s objectification continued.”

Councillor Kadeema Woodbyrne, Islington Council’s Women and Girls Champion, said: “We do still live in a very misogynistic patriarchal world – there’s still a sense that women and girls are not equal to men.

“I hope we get to a point where there’s a sense of collective responsibility. There’s a lesson to be learned about how we teach our children, and the value we put on women’s lives.”

In the last year, the council and the police have run ‘community safety walks’, while campaigners have called for better lighting and more police on the beat. A ‘women’s march’ was led by Emily Thornberry and council leader Kaya Comer-Schwartz only last month.

In Islington, police have recorded 2906 domestic abuse offences and 258 rapes in the year leading up to February 2022; the real figure is likely to be much higher, given the vast majority of violence against women goes still unreported.

Councillor Sue Lukes, Islington’s Safety Chief, said that while Islington has the highest ‘Sanction and Detention’ rate in London for domestic abuse – whereby further action is taken against the perpetrator of violence – that figure only amounts to 13 per cent of total domestic abuse cases reported.

“I’m glad we’re doing well, but everybody needs to be better,” she said. Professionals working as housing advisers, medics, social workers and teachers are also trained to “be aware of potential signs and ask sensitively,” said Cllr Lukes. Those referred to a local service “will have to wait two to three days at most,” to be seen.

Ms Thanwani’s family paid tribute to her as “the most caring and loving person we have ever known”. In a statement, relatives said: “In her short life, she helped so many. Sabita was pure and did not see bad in anyone, because there was no badness in her own awesome heart.

“We will never ever stop loving or missing our beautiful, irreplaceable Sabita. We can only pray that lessons will be learnt and that somehow, there will come a day when girls and women are safe.

It added: “We will never be able to thank the Metropolitan Police enough for their dedication and tireless work in finding justice for our Sabita.”

A City University spokesperson said the police had confirmed there is no heightened risk to students living in the halls and that student welfare officers and been in contact with those living in Arbour House.

“We are devastated by what has happened and our first thoughts are with Sabita’s family, friends and those in the City community who knew her,” they said. “Our message to our students is that we are here to support you and to listen to you – if you have any concerns, you can speak to a member of staff or access our support services.”

  • Maher Maaroufe, 22, has been charged with Ms Thanwani’s murder and the assault of an emergency worker. He appeared at the Old Bailey yesterday (Thursday) and will return to court in June.

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