QotD: “Why I have spent a decade counting murdered women”

All women are controlled by men’s violence. Whether or not they are the ones on the receiving end, it affects every one of us. When we clutch our keys as we walk home at night, when we pick the safest route along well-lit streets but also when we worry about whether a new partner, or a troubled male relative, could become abusive: we fear the kitchen knife pointed towards us, or the hands around our neck.

I grew up in West Yorkshire in the 1970s, in the shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”. We all knew, even children, about this bad man who was picking off women. And men’s violence against women was also around me as a child. It is there for so many of us — not just in public spaces but in intimate places too. That was one reason I have spent all my adult life working in specialist women’s services.

The deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have reignited a conversation about male violence, but it has focused on “stranger danger” when most women are killed by someone they know.

The Femicide Census, which I co-created with Clarrie O’Callaghan and which is supported by Freshfields, the law firm, and Deloitte, the auditors, annually publishes information about women who have been killed and the male perpetrators. We found that about 62 per cent of women killed by men are killed by current or former partners. About one in 12 are killed by strangers, roughly the same number as are murdered by their sons. Yet there hasn’t been any critical analysis of the danger sons pose to adult women; we never hear about “filial peril”. We don’t have an accurate picture of what men’s violence against women actually looks like in this country.

The census came about after I started my own record in January 2012, Counting Dead Women, which contemporaneously records female deaths at the hands of men. A young woman, Kirsty Treloar, who had been referred to Nia, the charity where I have been chief executive since 2009, was killed by the boyfriend she was trying to leave. I searched online to see what had happened to her. What I found instead was report after report of women who had been murdered. I have supported female victims of male violence for decades, yet the volume of crimes still surprised me. There was a phrase that kept appearing in these reports: “This was an isolated incident.” But there is nothing isolated about it. How could it be “isolated” when it was happening to so many women? And why were we not looking for the connections? That’s why I kept recording these deaths.

I was also angry that the government’s official data does not group together all the women killed by men. Even now, the Office for National Statistics records the sex of people who have been killed but not the sex of the person who killed them — so they don’t allow us to understand the difference between violence committed by men and violence committed by women. They only give you half the story.

You often hear the same, inaccurate, statistic: that two women a week are killed by men in England and Wales. That was the standard way murdered women were talked about — as a number. I wanted us to remember that they are human beings who are loved and missed. And recording all their names, I started to notice patterns: many older women are murdered and sexually assaulted during burglaries and women are often killed as they are either about to leave, or have just left, an abusive partner.

For many women, the moment they try to leave is incredibly dangerous. Staying with a violent man, horrific as this is, is the best survival strategy on offer for some women. Yet the places they would escape to, refuges, have had their funding cut for more than a decade and the expertise stripped out by allowing services to be delivered by the cheapest bidders, rather than specialist feminist organisations.

Young, professional, conventionally attractive, white women who are killed by strangers get the most attention but we must stop perpetuating this hierarchy of victims. I was really struck last week that in the judge’s sentencing remarks, he called Sarah Everard “a wholly blameless victim”. You can’t talk about her innocence without implicitly victim-blaming other women and we shouldn’t separate between women we empathise with and women we don’t. And women are killed by all kinds of men: from the unemployed to airline pilots and doctors — and, of course, police officers.

I think misogyny runs through the police. At least 15 serving or former police officers have killed women since 2009. The culture of the police needs fixing: it’s not a few bad apples; it’s a rotten orchard. We need an inquiry into institutionalised sexism in the police.

Killing a woman is not a gateway crime: it is not the first thing you do. If you murder a woman, you have usually been doing something abusive or criminal to women for a long time, you just haven’t been caught. And if Wayne Couzens is stage ten in violence against women, what are the police doing about officers, and other men, who are at stage three, four or five?

More broadly, we need to stop pussyfooting about naming men as perpetrators. Then to tackle the violence, we need a five-pronged strategy.

We need to focus on individual men, the perpetrators, and hold them to account. We must give women more options to leave. We should look at relationships and how those shape our culture. We need to ensure the police, the courts and social services are not institutionally sexist. Then we should address inequality: the objectification and sexualisation of women.

That is the only way anything will change.

Karen Ingala Smith

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