Counting dead women
Yesterday (25 November 2020), the Femicide Census published its fifth, and most comprehensive, report to date of women killed by men in the UK. The disturbing, UK-wide, ten-year report [2009-2018], which includes expert contributions from families whose loved ones have been taken violently from them and from professionals working on violence against women and girls, examines 1,425 cases of women killed by 1,419 men in all forms of violence against women. The Femicide Census is unique in the UK in that it covers all women killed by men and not only domestic homicide. Worryingly, it finds the number of women killed every year by men has stayed distressingly consistent at between 124 and 168 women killed each year raising serious questions about the State’s response to men’s violence against women in the last decade.
What is the Femicide Census?
The Femicide Census is a database containing information on nearly 1500 women killed by men in England and Wales since 2009. It is a ground-breaking project which aims to provide a clearer picture of men’s fatal violence against women by allowing for detailed tracking and analysis. It was developed by Karen Ingala Smith and Women’s Aid working in partnership, with support from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Deloitte LLP.
The census has been developed out of an urgent need to address the reality of fatal male violence against women. It can play a key part in the identification of patterns of femicide, the circumstances leading up to it and ultimately help us reduce femicide.
In February 2015 the Femicide Census was launched. It was based on information collected by Karen Ingala Smith and recorded in her blog Counting Dead Women. Since January 2012 she has searched the web for news of women killed by men; information that was hidden in plain sight- in a plethora of Domestic Homicide Reviews, police statistics, local press articles and reports in which women killed by men were mentioned. She gathered details of the perpetrators and the incident of murder itself, including the date, names, police force area and information about children, recorded motive and the weapon. In December 2016, the first Femicide Census Report was released. This is their fifth report. The rate at which women are killed has remained tragically constant over this time:
“By any measure, we had hoped to see the number of killings gradually decreasing given the State has had our data for a number of years, as well as its own initiatives to tackle men’s violent crime against women. We show that there are so many patterns to the killings which would enable the State to target certain factors which could lead to a reduction in the number of women killed. The fact that a similar number of women are still being killed over a decade is a serious failing and indicates a lack of will to tackle root causes.”
The 174 page report contains a distressingly exhaustive analysis of this tragic data including the day of the week and month of the year in which UK femicides take place, the police force area, the victim’s relationship to the perpetrator and much more.
In 46% of all cases (658) the perpetrator had a history of violence, whether against this victim or against other people. Indeed, in 29 cases the perpetrator had killed before; in 20 cases, women and in nine cases, men and, in one case, the perpetrator was a serial killer. In at least 59% of femicides committed by intimate partners or male relatives, there was a history of prior abuse by the perpetrator against the victim. In 67% of cases of intimate partner violence, the victim had told someone about the abuse she was experiencing and in 55% of cases, the violence and brutality used in the killing amounted to “overkilling”.
The most common method of killing was with a sharp instrument (47%) followed by strangulation/asphyxiation(27%) and then by blunt instrument(16%) and then by use of hitting, kicking or stamping (15%).
In 62% of cases, the primary context of the violence was intimate partner abuse that is to say abuse committed by a current or ex-spouse/intimate partner and in 43% of those cases the victim had separated or taken steps to separate from the perpetrator and in 89% of such cases, she was killed within one year of separating/taking steps to separate. In a further 10% of cases, it was violence committed by another male relative, including 111 cases of sons, step-sons and grandsons killing mother figures. In 13% of cases where the victim was aged over 66 years, the killer was a robber or burglar.
This report gives the lie to the standard press releases that these killings of women are “tragic, unpredictable, isolated incidents” which “give no cause for wider public concern” – they have common patterns, they have known risk factors, they demonstrate a massive public policy failing which should concern us all. The whole response to violence against women and the criminal justice system are heavily criticised. The report addresses:
- Lack of funding for, and cuts to, specialist women’s sector
- Disregard for known expertise in the field leading to inaction and to inadequate training and awareness to identify, and act against, perpetrator risk
- Questionable charging practice at the Crown Prosecution Service,
- Inconsistency of sentencing at trial with sentences varying from as few as 23 or 44 months to as much as multiple life sentences
- Weaknesses in risk and safety assessment in probation resulting in perpetrators killing again
- Questionable and inconsistent practice among Coroners’ failing to identify the role of violence against women in deaths of women or to point to lessons for relevant agencies
- A failure to collate, store and make easily accessible transparent, disaggregated, searchable official data about violence against women.
The reports authors sum up this devastating situation:
“The consistency at which women are killed suggests failures, fragmentation and inadequacies at every level, and in every process, that is meant to work to prevent, investigate and prosecute men’s violence against women. So blanket and integrated are these failures, and so consistent across the ten years, that we can see that men are, in some cases, quite literally getting away with murder. We found a further 117 cases of deaths of women which were suspicious or violent but could not be included because ultimately no one was convicted and we fear there are many more. What more is needed before Government starts to deliver for women?”