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Femicide in the UK

The epidemic of lethal violence against women has been laid bare in the latest edition of the Femicide Census, which reveals that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. 

The Femicide Census was founded in 2015 with the express purpose of drawing much-needed attention to the phenomenon of femicide, defined as ‘any killing of women and girls by men’. The newest report covers the period from 2009 to 2018, and is filled with stark, startling facts which demand our attention.

The apparent threat to women by strangers is put into perspective by the fact that 62% of all females killed by males were in fact preyed upon by someone they were in an intimate relationship with – from partners and ex-partners to someone they were seeing in a casual, on-off way. Of these women killed by men they were intimate with, 43% were either separated from the killer, or in the process of trying to separate. And an overwhelming majority – 89% – were murdered within the first year of separation, showing how dangerous the immediate aftermath of a relationship can be. It’s also noted in the report that many women had been killed by family members other than partners or ex-partners. For example, a staggering 111 women were killed by their own sons. Only 8% of femicides were carried out by complete strangers. 

Tellingly, the Femicide Census also reveals that such murders are very often not abrupt or unexpected events. In 59% of femicides carried out by an intimate partner, there was a history of abuse carried out by the man – abuse that had even reported to the authorities in a third of cases. A particularly disturbing detail is the fact that 70% of killings occurred in the victims’ homes, which underscores just how at-risk so many women are in the very place that’s supposed to provide security and shelter. 

Perhaps the single most damning revelation of this latest Femicide Census is that, in the words of the report, ‘the numbers of women killed per years, the methods used, the contexts in which women are killed and their relationships with the men who kill them have changed little over the ten-year period.’ 

This is self-evidently an alarming and shameful state of affairs, forcing us to grapple with the reasons why so many women are being victimised, and how best to tackle the scourge of violence. The Femicide Census quotes Caroline Goode, a retired Detective Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, who outlines the inherent, systemic problems which have made women more vulnerable. She explicitly mentions lack of sufficient training and awareness among police officers, and the sheer pressure the authorities are under. ‘Officers lack the time to listen to victims who might not even be able to articulate their abuse,’ Goode writes. ‘A stolen purse is a lot easier to explain than years of insidious coercive control. That requires time and a frame of reference in order to understand and spot the danger signs. Until those factors change, mistakes will continue to be made and women will continue to be killed.’

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The census also emphasises a general lack of a nuanced appreciation of the complexities behind domestic violence and femicide. For example, while it shows that ‘women born outside the UK may be disproportionately killed by men’, it would be deeply unhelpful to simply lump such victims together under the category of ‘immigrant’. Instead, there should be an attempt to untangle the reasons why, say, women from Poland, Latvia and Romania are disproportionately represented among non-UK born victims of femicide. There’s clearly a problem here, which the report suggests is bound up with factors ‘such as poverty, language barriers, sexual exploitation’ and ‘dependency on men’.

Other issues highlighted by the report include the rise of the ‘rough sex defence’, in which men attempt to explain away the killings of women by claiming their deaths were the result of kinky play gone wrong, and also the ever-present risk of violence to sex workers. Campaigner Fiona Broadfoot is quoted as saying ‘I spent eleven years shut down and disassociated from myself, enduring rapes and beatings framed as ‘occupational hazards’… Many of the girls and women I was in street prostitution with disappeared without trace. No one missed them, no one looked for them, estranged from family and friends and dehumanised by the system of prostitution.’

The recent publication of this landmark Femicide Census prompted a pledge by the first ‘domestic abuse tsar’ for England and Wales, Nicole Jacobs, to tackle femicide head-on. Speaking at an online event to mark the release of the report, she focused on another deeply embedded problem – a lack of coordination between agencies and authorities, resulting in a ‘postcode lottery’ where women are given better or poorer protections depending on where they live.

Ultimately, it’s clear there’s much that needs to be done. As the Femicide Census itself points out, the UK is one of the few countries in Europe which hasn’t yet ratified the Istanbul Convention – a treaty designed to tackle violence and discrimination against women. The Femicide Census also calls for more resources and funding for women-only public services, and the need for specific support for women from Eastern Europe. The media, too, has its part to play in shifting perceptions. The Femicide Census is uncompromising in its criticism here, saying that ‘all media reporting of men’s violence needs to be contextualised in the wider context of systemic violence’, rather than being explained away as ‘unpredictable, tragic, isolated incidents.’

The bottom line is that it’s only with such sweeping, bold, system-wide changes that the nation can even begin to tackle the gruesome epidemic of femicide.