Understanding Britain's Femicide Problem

Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Women protesting against gender-based violence during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Whichever way you look at it, Britain has a big gender-based violence problem. Between 2009 and 2015, men killed over 900 women in England and Wales, and – perhaps even more shocking – 64% of these women were victims of a current or former partner, while another 8% were killed by their sons.

These are only some of the alarming figures revealed earlier this month in the first detailed analysis of the Femicide Census, a database collating information on deadly male violence against women. It was developed by Karen Ingala Smith, founder of Counting Dead Women – a project launched in 2012 to record all UK women murdered by men – in partnership with national charity Women’s Aid.

Tracking and comparing data from the past six years, the census aims to provide a clearer picture of femicide – a term that became popular in the 1970s and generally refers to the killing of a woman because she is a woman – whether committed by a partner, ex-partner, relative, acquaintance, colleague or stranger.

“Unless we gather as much information as possible about the incidents, we won’t ever understand how to stop [them] from happening,” explains Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid. “What happens at the moment is that nobody is joining the dots, nobody is looking at common factors.”

Often, she reports, both the police and the media record these killings as isolated, random events. Yet as the census shows, there are many cases that follow a similar pattern of violence against women, deeply rooted in inequality and discrimination. Identifying those patterns may be the first necessary step towards effectively addressing the issue of femicide, and saving women’s lives.

“The first thing [we learned] is that the overwhelmingly biggest category of women killed is women killed by a current or former intimate partner,” Neate points out. “That is very shocking, and it needs to be highlighted because there is a very big contrast to [the circumstances in which] men [are generally killed].”

In 2013, the UN Global Study on Homicide revealed that, while 79% of all homicide victims globally are male, intimate partner or family-related homicide disproportionately affects women, who make up two-thirds of victims. And the UK is no exception. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, in the year ending March 2015, 44% of female homicide victims were killed by their partner or ex-partner, compared with only 6% of male homicide victims.
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This means that, while the majority of men are killed by people they may not even know, women are far more likely to be killed by someone who is expected to love and care for them.

Typically, before the killing, the perpetrator has already emotionally and/or physically dominated the woman for months or years, through various forms of control, manipulation or abuse. It is the immediate post-separation period when the risks are highest. Data from the census show that 76% of women killed by their ex-partner or ex-spouse were killed within the first year following their attempt to end the abusive relationship.

In response to this fact, Neate urges all agencies involved to recognise the dangers of this transitional time and implement specific, appropriate responses.

“The police, for example... Even if the perpetrator has not been convicted or sentenced, the police need to make sure to keep an eye on him. And things like court orders, for example, which can protect women, they need to be used within that first year after separation.”

More key recommendations have been issued in the census’ report, calling for the government to guarantee long-term funding for specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence services, and for the criminal justice system to improve sentencing and ensure perpetrators are held to account.

“The issue of femicide in the UK is a serious one that cannot be ignored any longer. The figures speak for themselves in terms of the pernicious nature of this problem and the countless lives lost,” says Aisha K. Gill, professor of criminology at the University of Roehampton and leading expert on violence against women.

Professor Gill highlights that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that it elicits an inadequate response from the legal system, particularly in the field of criminal justice. She warns: “The state has an obligation to prevent femicide and to prosecute those who perpetrate it; otherwise it violates the human rights of women guaranteed by international treaties.”

Femicide is a leading cause of premature death among women globally; it does not distinguish between society, class or race.

Femicide is recognised as a leading cause of premature death among women globally; it does not distinguish between society, class or race. It can take many different forms, including intimate partner-related killings, so-called "honour" crimes, dowry-related murders, forced suicide, female infanticide, gender-based sex-selective foeticide, and the targeted killing of women during wars and in the context of organised crime.

“[It] is essentially an act of violence against women, in its strongest form, and often preceded by other forms of violence against women, so the legal response to femicide needs to form part of the way we address all forms of violence against women in an integral and comprehensive way,” Gill adds.

But despite its scale and fatal consequences, research and investment remain scarce. “The police receive a call related to domestic violence every 30 seconds in this country. You would think that it is such a massive crime that there would be a lot of resources dedicated to preventing it and dedicated to stopping it, but that is not the case,” says Neate.

Compared to other countries with a similar socio-economic context, the UK is very typical, she admits. But, she adds, “What’s striking is that the response to domestic violence that has been developed in the UK, which is very much focused on a short-term approach, is clearly not working, because we’re not seeing a reduction in the number of women killed.” We just carry on with things, instead of pausing to think what other alternatives may be available.

As for prevention in the long run, she thinks an educational strategy could be even more useful than police resources. “The most important thing is for sex and relationships education to be made compulsory in schools, so all children and young people can understand what a positive, respectful and healthy relationship looks like.”

Meanwhile, pressure on the government is growing. At the end of November, five MPs wrote to the education department asking to introduce sex and relationships education as a statutory subject, following a new report that exposed the shocking scale of sexual harassment and violence in English schools.
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