What counting dead women tells us that Clare's Law cannot

Drawing connections between the murders of women by men is surprisingly rare. Attempting to accurately calculate women who died because of a sexist culture is even harder.

New Statesman
A woman walks past a wall displaying 107 figures with the names of the women who have been killed by men in Italy during the year on November 25, 2012 in Rome as part as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Image: Getty

One day, Karen Ingala Smith started counting dead women and couldn’t stop. It was January 2012, and the year had begun with seven horrific incidents of domestic violence in its first three days: all women killed, in various ways, by their male partners. After a couple of months, Smith stopped restricting her attention to murders purely involving domestic violence. Instead, she focused on clear incidences of misogyny - serial killers who only targeted women, for instance, or men who killed the sisters or female friends of their girlfriends or wives.  

Smith’s reason for counting dead women is simple: to humanise and draw attention to the problem. Her argument for change is that the government should start recording and researching femicide in a way it never has done before. Most murders of women by men are not random, she believes; these murders should be seen in the context of a sexist society, where violence against women is endemic. “I want to see the connections between the different forms of fatal male violence against women,” she writes. “The statistic ‘on average two women a week [are] killed through domestic violence in England and Wales’ is well known. People seem to be able to repeat this without getting outraged or upset... [T]hrough connecting and naming the women killed, I’m trying to make the horror and unacceptability of what is happening feel more real.”

Drawing connections between the murders of women by men is surprisingly rare; attempting to accurately calculate the numbers of women who died because of a sexist culture is even harder. One woman on the @CountDeadWomen Twitter illustrates this best by her description of the suicide of a 15-year-old schoolfriend, who had been raped by her boyfriend and then jumped out of a window after fearing that her father would murder her for dishonouring the family. “She wasn’t killed by the hand of a man,” @marstrina conceded - but she was still the victim of a society that routinely blames the victim in cases of rape and still often sees women as the property of their male relatives. Deaths like these are not as far removed from domestic violence murders as conventional crime statistics might lead one to believe.

Smith’s tactic of naming women and documenting the way in which they were killed undoubtedly hits a nerve, and perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire project is the frequency with which she tweets the details of new victims. As she has pointed out, quoting statistics can only get anyone so far. But there are statistics worth bearing in mind beyond the oft-quoted ‘two women per week killed by former or current partners’ – for instance, the Women’s Aid data stating that in the case of domestic violence, an average of 35 assaults happen before the police are called. Or the fact that rates of domestic violence have increased by 17% during the recession, but the government has responded by cutting funding to violence against women programmes. In London alone, services for women seeking help from abusive relationships have been cut by £1.9 million since 2009. These numbers build a picture of serial political failures - meanwhile, Counting Dead Women continues to put a face to the effects of such policies.

So how should we respond? It was announced today that Clare’s Law, which allows people to check the police records of their partners and has been piloted in Greater Manchester, Wiltshire, Nottingham and Gwent since 2012, will now be expanded to cover all of England and Wales. The law’s namesake is Clare Wood, a young woman murdered in 2009 by a boyfriend with an extensive history of violence against women – but it’s unclear whether Clare’s Law would have actually saved her life. Domestic violence charity Refuge has raised issues with the law in the past and continues to do so, arguing that most abusers aren’t known to police and more deaths could be avoided by focusing on the police response to violence against women.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, stated at the disclosure scheme’s inception that “it is another way for the government to sound tough on domestic violence while actually doing very little.” I can’t help but agree. Rhetoric and emotively named laws are easy; identifying and changing a culture that trivialises misogyny is much more difficult. Telling women that they can visit their police force after a few dates with a new boyfriend and check that he hasn’t been convicted of GBH in the past is one thing. Questioning why violence against women is all too often treated flippantly by the police, on the other hand, involves a forbidding amount of self-examination. As Horley also pointed out, police already had the power to disclose the crimes of Clare Wood's partner to her - but for a number of reasons, they didn't use it.

Only when we start to acknowledge the links between violent acts against women can we tackle one of the most stubbornly persistent problems in the UK. Until then, we have no option but to continue counting dead women, all the while working towards a future when there will be no more victims to count.