How Can We Stop Women From Being Killed by Strangers?

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It was a regular evening on 8th of March 2015 when Prabha Arun Kumar embarked on her usual route home through Parramatta Park in western Sydney.

Just minutes later, tragedy unfolded as she was brutally stabbed to by a stranger just minutes from her Westmead home. She died in hospital later that night.

Mrs Arun Kumar was reportedly on her phone to her husband in India at the time of the attack. He has since told police that he heard her screaming and pleading for mercy as a ‘suspicious-looking man’ approached.

Her killer has still not been found.

Less than two weeks later, 17-year-old Melbourne schoolgirl Masa Vukotic was stabbed early in the evening as she made her way home. Neighbours heard her screams and called police – but it was too late. Miss Vukotic died less than a kilometre from her Doncaster home.

31-year-old Sean Christian Price has been charged with her murder, as well as a variety of other offences that he is alleged to have committed while on the run from police.

The twin incidents have sent shockwaves through the wider Australian community, with many women now fearing for their safety while journeying alone.

The events have also thrust the issue of women’s safety into the media spotlight, with the public questioning what we needs to be done to guard against further unprovoked attacks upon innocent women.

Some have advocated for tougher laws, while others have called for better surveillance in certain areas, and still others have warned women not to walk alone at night.

But what’s the best approach?

What Does the Law Currently Say?

The offence of murder is contained in section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

A person can be convicted of murder if the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they killed a person, and had an intention to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm upon that person.

Grievous bodily harm refers to ‘really serious harm,’ such as severely broken bones or deep wounding as a result of being stabbed.

The maximum penalty for murder is life imprisonment. The offence also carries a ‘standard non-parole period’ of 20 years – however this does not necessarily mean that a person convicted of murder will spend 20 years in prison.

Rather, the standard non-parole period is simply a ‘yardstick’ which is considered by the judge in sentencing; it represents the penalty for a hypothetical murder in the middle range of seriousness.

However, it does not take into account the nature of the offence itself or subjective factors such as a defendant’s age, criminal history, mental illness etc – which may all either increase or reduce the actual non-parole period imposed by the court.

The ‘non-parole period’ is the time that a person must spend in prison before being eligible to apply for release.

What More Should We Do?

Responding to the attack on Miss Vukotic, Victorian Homicide Detective Michael Hughes suggested that women ‘shouldn’t be alone in parks,’ and ‘be a little bit more careful.’

Detective Hughes’ remarks drew widespread criticism from women’s rights groups, with many suggesting that they promoted a culture of victim-blaming and did nothing to address the behaviour of perpetrators of violence.

Civil libertarians have cautioned against any rhetoric that may impinge on the right and freedom of women to walk alone.

And of course, in the wake of these tragic incidents there has been the usual criticism directed towards the supposed deficiencies in our legal system such as sentencing and bail laws.

But while tougher penalties and bail laws may appeal to some members of the public, they fail to directly address the underlying mentality of potential offenders.

And – as discussed above, the maximum penalty for murder is already life imprisonment, yet these incidents continue to occur.

So what other measures can we consider?

One other proposal is to increase security in problem areas such as public parks and unlit walkways.

In the weeks following the Parramatta Park attack, the council has announced that it will undertake an audit of the park to determine whether there is a need for better security mechanisms, such as CCTV and lighting, following numerous media reports that the path Mrs Arun Kumar walked along was unlit.

But while the park’s director, Suellen Fitzgerald, said that she would immediately implement any recommendations, she also noted that police have never raised any ‘significant problems’ regarding security in the area.

Furthermore, CCTV cameras are never a foolproof solution. 26 cameras were recently installed in Wagga Wagga in a bid to reduce crime, however some residents feared that criminal activity would simply move to places where cameras had not been installed. And statistics indicate that CCTV cameras have limited effectiveness in solving crime.

An alternative approach which was implemented by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 involved focusing on preventative measures to address all types of violence against women and children.

An Action Plan published online places an emphasis on education and community engagement to change attitudes and behaviours, including programs run through schools and workplaces which promote gender equality and respect towards women.

The Plan also encompasses early intervention measures to identify boys and men who are at risk of violence. Under the initiative, community services will be equipped with the training necessary to assist such people to address and correct negative behaviour and attitude before it escalates.

Finally, it proposes a system of support to women and children who suffer as a result of violence through counselling and communication with specialised liaison officers.

The recent incidents certainly suggest that something needs to be done to better protect women travelling alone at night. However, any proposals to address the issue must be carefully considered before being implemented.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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