New crime figures show that the number of women killed by a partner or former partner rose sharply last year – from 63 to 80. And while murders as a whole declined, the number of women and girls murdered went up by an alarming 10 per cent on the previous year, to 241 – the highest level for 14 years.
This included a huge rise in the number of female victims aged over 65, from 33 to 58, making women the majority of murder victims in that age group (a significant number of female murder victims are killed by their adult sons).
Some 48 per cent of women homicide victims were killed in a domestic setting, compared with 8 per cent of male victims. In 38 per cent of killings of women and girls aged 16 or over, the suspect was a partner or ex-partner.
These murders are so common they usually only make local news. Last year, as collated in Karen Ingala Smith’s “Counting Dead Women” project, they included 42-year-old Alison Hunt who was stabbed 18 times by ex-partner 47-year-old Vernon Holmes on her doorstep in Swinton while her daughter slept upstairs; 59-year-old Carol Milne from Aberdeen whose 24-year-old son has been charged with her murder; and 28-year-old Cristina Ortiz-Lozano who was stabbed multiple times at her home in Southampton in September. (Note how much of this is “knife crime”.)
Why are these killings increasing?
Women’s rights activists set the agenda decades ago by naming domestic violence, building the necessary crisis support services, and challenging perpetrators and the authorities in the courts.
Following this, police and local councils brought in a certain amount of training, and a system for apparently calculating the low, medium or high level of risk a woman known to them might be in at any time.
But there are real concerns that this “risk assessment” system can be crude and of little use in the hands of workers who do not understand the controlling, bullying and gendered behaviours at the heart of domestic violence.
The domestic homicide reviews following these murders have been collated and show that women who were murdered had frequently been judged to be at low or medium risk, leaving them at a level of alert too low to keep them safe.
This poor judgement was often based on perceiving “serious” domestic violence as isolated incidents of physical violence while minimising jealous, controlling and surveillance behaviours.
These reviews also show that it is not the police who have the best opportunity to reach victims and perpetrators before abuse escalates to murder. It is the health service, and especially GPs. Women who are subject to abuse are more likely to visit the GP with injuries, anxiety, depression and substance problems than they are to call the police.
Perpetrators present more often in health settings than in criminal justice too. But GPs are not routinely trained in recognising and enquiring about domestic violence and have even been found to have a “lack of professional curiosity” about it.
Similarly, children’s social care services are in contact with many women who are at high risk, but their practice of making women responsible for protecting children from men they themselves are afraid of, has the effect of closing down the chance of women disclosing their fears.
The data and homicide reviews also tell us that a large proportion of murdered women are BME and migrant women. These women consistently come up against barrier after barrier when trying to disclose and get the support, protection and legal advice they need.
They face racist stereotypes about how women and men from their communities are supposed to behave, a lack of specialist support which can make the difference between life and death at the moment a woman tries to get out, and some have been treated as immigration offenders rather than victims. We need to urgently ring-fence specialist support for these women and set up a “firewall” which means immigration enforcement is not a consideration in domestic abuse cases.
Yet treating domestic violence as a question of state agency failure alone masks the behaviour of men who choose to abuse and murder women. We have to ask – why in 2020 are boys still growing into men who feel entitled to control the women in their lives?
We should also recognise that the real experts in this field are the specialist local women’s support services and they are best-placed to lead the design of joined-up local work to protect women. But they have had their budgets slashed over the last decade.
So, we already know a lot about who is killed, who knew about them, and how controlling behaviour is the driver. We know the primary answer is not policing, which is why this increase in the murder rate should not be simplistically attributed to police cuts. Murders of women are arguably increasing because we are not really trying to prevent them.
We need to stop minimising controlling behaviour, which requires a conversation about gender norms and inequality. And we need public services which believe women when they say they feel threatened or afraid, and understand that this does not look the same for all women. We need to redesign our response with women at the centre and accountability rather than invisibility of perpetrators. And for all of this we need leaders and champions across every part of public life. Without this, women will continue to be murdered at these alarming rates.
Sarah Green is director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition