Gaia deserved a chance to see the world, to fall in love. That was taken from her – and we want justice, writes Gaia’s cousin Marienna for the Guardian.
Today is the 365th day I’ve woken up with a hole in my chest where my heart used to be. The 11 days my cousin Gaia Pope was missing before her body was found felt like an out-of-body experience. We somehow lost the need to eat and sleep; nothing in the world mattered except bringing her home safe.
The community-led effort to find her was a grassroots miracle, filled with enough love and power to obscure that cold feeling in my gut and the whisper that said what we all already knew: she would never have left us.
The press often call her “tragic Gaia Pope”, which I hate not just because it does her no justice but also because her death was not tragedy; it was travesty.
Gaia was my cousin, but I loved her like a sister from the moment I first held her as a baby in my arms when I was seven years old. As a woman, she was let down by the services we all trust will be there for us in our hour of need. She fell through the cracks in the system and she died there.
First, she was let down by Dorset police when they chose not to prosecute for an alleged rape that took place when she was just 16. She is not alone in this: the prosecution and conviction rates for rape are worse now than they were 40 years ago.
The stigma and indignities she was subjected to as a survivor, along with the failure of the police to make her feel safe, drove her deep into post-traumatic stress. She received only a few weeks of crisis counselling from local mental health services, even though we, her family, felt that she needed a lot more. Meanwhile, her mother was being forced to leave her to work every night, just to keep a roof over their heads.
She is not alone in this, either: contrary to government rhetoric, mental health services have been decimated by austerity, none more than youth services. They receive just 7% of mental health funding even though 75% of mental health issues start young, and provision in Dorset, where my family is from, is particularly poor.
Eventually, her declining mental and physical health drove her first out of college and then work. Now it was the turn of the welfare system to relentlessly interrogate her trauma and undermine her sense of self-respect. She was forced to fight a lengthy battle for the personal independence payments (PIP) to which she was entitled.
Again, this isn’t just Gaia’s story: the PIP system has since been ruled “blatantly discriminatory” towards people with mental health issues and a great many people have died waiting for, fighting for or having given up on the support they deserve.
On 7 November last year, triggered, we believe, by an incident of sexual harassment online, Gaia passed the point of her endurance. With no phone, no cash, no coat and daylight fading, she simply disappeared. This was the last opportunity for the state to intervene and save her life. We begged them from the first moment to search for her along the coastal paths we had walked since childhood. “If she was out there, we’d have found her,” one police officer told me. It took 11 days for them to find her body there. By then it was too late.
One year on we know very little more than that. The postmortem said she was killed by hypothermia. I say it was a death by indifference. Gaia was a child soldier in a war that has cost more than 120,000 lives in Britain alone since 2010. She was fighting to survive and growing up poor in the age of austerity and that is a bloody, hard fight. She battled bravely for her rights but also for those around her; she never once let go of her humanity, her creativity, her determination to see the best in others. I am so profoundly proud of her for that.
Gaia deserved better. All of us do. She deserved the chance to fulfil her potential and give back to her community all the courage and compassion she had to offer. It’s not just her loved ones who have been robbed of someone precious, and our local community knows that.
Gaia deserved a chance to see the world, to fall in love, to have a family of her own. All that was taken from her – from us – and I want justice for that. But I also want justice for those left behind: the one in five women and girls who have endured sexual violence in this country; the 70% of young people with mental health challenges not receiving proper support; the countless families up and down the country who have been sacrificed on the altar of austerity; the lives not yet lost, precious, worth fighting for.
The world is a darker place without Gaia, but she still lights our way. We honour her memory when we fight for justice for her and for the better world that she believed in. In that sense, with support from and as part of a much wider movement for social justice, she will triumph yet.