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  1. Election 2024
13 February 2015

Why we need a Femicide Census

Finally, data from dozens of sources about the killings of women by men can be brought together so we can see how grave the problem really is.

By Sarah Ditum

The launch of the Femicide Census is the culmination of the work of one individual: Karen Ingala Smith, self-described “random woman in a back bedroom in Walthamstow”. At the beginning of 2012, she realised that the news was telling her the same story over and over, although the names and details changed. There was Kirsty Treloar, killed by her boyfriend Myles Williams; Susan McGoldrick, Alison Turnbull and Tanya Turnbull, killed by Susan’s partner Michael Atherton; Claire O’Connor, killed by her boyfriend Aaron Mann; Betty Yates, killed by drifter Stephen Farrow. Again and again and again and again, women were being killed by men.

Ingala Smith understands something about the patterns of male violence – in her day job, she’s CEO of domestic and sexual violence charity nia – and she started taking note. This was the beginning of Counting Dead Women, the most comprehensive resource on women killed by men in the UK. “Once I’d started, how could I stop?” she asks the audience at Northcliffe House, who have come to mark the development of her project into the Femicide Census, in collaboration with Women’s Aid, legal firm Freshfields, Bruckhaus and Deringer LLP, and Deloitte LLP, which has provided the analytic muscle of the Census. “How could I say the next didn’t matter?”

But the Femicide Census is also the culmination of decades of women’s work to counter men’s violence. (At this event, there are no tactful efforts to portray violence as an equal opportunities crime: when women are killed, it’s usually by men, and no one on the panels or in the audience has any qualms about saying so. “We won’t get anywhere being gender-neutral,” says Polly Neate of Women’s Aid, briskly.) Speakers include feminist campaigner and academic Jill Radford, who (with Diana E H Russell) co-edited the book Femicide: The Politics of Women Killing, published in 1992. Then, it introduced the word “femicide” to describe the phenomenon Radford defines as “the killing of women because they’re women”, and it was definitive in scope, taking in the intersections with racism, honour cultures and white western cultural misogyny.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Femicide sets the bar for the study of male violence against women, and stands as a still-pertinent foundation for the work yet to be done. I ask Radford whether she thinks the Census represents a high point for women’s resistance to male violence. Now retired, she puts today’s launch into the context of her years of activism, and sees what still needs doing. “There’s this dream that the government will swoop in,” she says. “Even back then [in the Seventies and Eighties] we thought we’d just be running the refuges for now.” But any piece of legislation is only a stage in the campaign, and can never make women’s organisations redundant. “Don’t just demand that the government does things,” Radford tells me. “Demand that it does them right. These things have to be woman-centred.”

Criticism of the current government is one of the unifying themes of the day. Many frontline service providers are in the room, and the cuts have been keenly felt. Karen Bradley MP, the minister for modern slavery and organised crime, makes many of the right noises in her keynote speech, but is notably light on financial commitments. In the question-and-answer section afterwards, criminologist Dr Aisha K Gill pointedly raises the decimation of specialist refuge services, particularly those that work with black and minority ethnicity women (Latin American Women’s Aid is right now campaigning to retain its funding). Bradley’s vague response offers little comfort, and nor does she suggest that any government resources will be available to maintain and expand the Femicide Census.

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This seems like appalling short-sightedness on the part of the government. The Femicide Census means that data from dozens of sources about the killings of women by men can finally be brought together. A demonstration shows just how powerful a tool this can be: cases can be analysed by relationship between the woman and her killer (the Census captures all acts of femicide, including stranger attacks and familial abuse, not just fatal intimate partner violence), recorded motive, age of victim and perpetrator, whether the woman had children or not – almost any metric you can think of is available to interrogation, although there are many gaps in the data still to be filled (in particular, details on ethnicity are hard to come by).

The more you know, the more you can achieve. The Femicide Census opens up huge new possibilities for evidence-based policy, as Dr Marceline Naudi says in her opening remarks: “We want our counting to count.” In fact, by the end of the day, it’s obvious that this is more than a “want” – tackling fatal male violence against women is an absolute necessity. We hear personal tributes to the aunts, daughters and sisters cruelly pinched out of existence. Most wrenching of all is the constant refrain of missed opportunities. For example, Julie Warren-Sykes speaks eloquently of her daughter Samantha, murdered by the abusive boyfriend of a friend, despite chance after chance for separate agencies to put the pieces together and intervene. With the help of the Census, the patterns of men killing women can be made visible – and undeniable, even to the most placidly incurious of public services.

Already, Ingala Smith’s tireless recording seems to have brought about a change in the way violence is discussed. A year ago, it felt controversial to question the pat police phrase “isolated incident”, trotted out to reassure us that individual men had satiated their violence on individual women and been contained. Thanks to the Census, we can see the connections. We know that male violence is never isolated – it is systemic in a hierarchical society where men stand above and women below. We know that violence against women follows distinct trends: for example, while violent crime is declining overall, intimate partner violence (a form of violence committed predominantly against women) has remained stable since 2008-9. And in this context, we talk about femicide, so we can see precisely the lines of power and control that work their damage on women. “Our lives are worthy and our voices should be heard,” says domestic violence survivor Mandy Wood in her talk. The Femicide Census is the voice of a crisis. It is time to listen. It is time to act.

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