Every year on International Women’s Day, Labour MP Jess Phillips stands up in the House of Commons and starts Counting Dead Women, reading out a list of names of the women who were killed that year by men. That list is getting longer as reports show that domestic abuse is at a five-year high. 139 women died at the hands of men in 2017; in 2018, that number jumped to 173, according to data obtained by the BBC.
To use the Government definition, domestic abuse is 'any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of their gender or sexuality.' By Women’s definition, domestic violence can (and does) mean everything from online abuse, to coercive control, physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
In 2019, the domestic homicides started early. Charlotte Huggins barely made it into the New Year when Michael Rolle killed her. Huggins was at her aunt’s home in London when the man whom she had described as a 'nutcase' a few days earlier when she tried to break up with him, forced his way into the house and stabbed her in the back. Rolle had reacted to the break up earlier by holding a knife to her stomach. He is said to have become aggressive when he saw her with another man and flown into a 'jealous rage.' He was arrested three days later and jailed for life in July.
That same day, Jay Edmunds died in a fire, along with two other people. One of those people was Ashley Martin. Edmunds and Martin had been in a relationship, but she had ended it four days before the fire, saying she found him smothering and overbearing. She left and went to the house with the third victim, Billy Hicks, also an ex of hers. Martin then drove to the house with 17 litres of petrol and matches. All three died of smoke inhalation, but Hicks’ body was also found stabbed in the heart.
A few days later, Simbiso Aretha Moula was found dead, along with her husband Garikayi Moula, in what the police think was a murder-suicide. She had been strangled.
Sarah Ashraf died the following day. Her brother, Khalid Ashraf, was charged with her death.
Although domestic abuse has both male and female victims, it is still a gendered crime: the victims are predominantly female, with the perpetrators predominantly male. Statistics show that of the 400 domestic homicides recorded between April 2014 and March 2017, 73% of victims were women, compared to 27% of male victims. 239 women were killed by a partner or ex-partner and the majority of suspects (238) in those murders were male. In contrast, 61% of the male victims were killed by another male, while only 3% of female victims were killed by another female (the majority of those other family members).
Michael Strudwick was another jealous boyfriend. He accidentally shot his girlfriend Christy Walshe in the face when she was trying to stop him from ending his own life. The man he was jealous of was Walshe’s late partner. In July, he was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 26 years.
Ellie Gould was 17. She was stabbed by Thomas Griffiths after she refused to be his girlfriend.
Mary Page was 68. Her son was sentenced to six years in prison for her murder. He kicked her to death.
Despite how common domestic abuse is, there are still damaging myths surrounding it. Like that women lie about their abuse because they’re bitter about break ups or to gain custody of children, as Australian MP Pauline Hanson claimed recently, pushing an inquiry into the family court system. In 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service released the results of a study into just that. Over 17 months, there were 111,891 prosecutions for domestic abuse, six for making false allegations.
Then there’s the common and pervasive idea that if things were that bad, a victim would leave. But as we’ve seen with many high profile cases, like Sally Challen’s, that’s just not true. The reasons for staying can range from fear, shame and love of the abuser, to the belief that their abuse is normal, that they deserved it. Then there are the very real practical issues that include financial dependency and a lack of resources. 6,000 people became homeless as a result of domestic violence between January and March in 2019 alone. As Women’s Aid have made clear: we need to stop blaming the victim and start making it easier for them to leave.
Luz Margory Isaza Villegas tried to leave her husband, Alberto Rodrigo Giraldo-Tascon. The couple had separated in January and he was said to have become ‘obsessive’. He strangled her in front of the baby they were fostering, set her body on fire, before stuffing her remains into a suitcase and leaving it in a shallow grave. There were also signs of blunt force trauma to her face and injuries to her neck that suggested strangulation. He told their children she’d left them. He had a history of domestic abuse.
As a recent study shows that women feel let down by the criminal justice system, it’s clear serious changes need to be made.
Charities like Refuge have also spoken for the urgent need for action. Boris Johnson committed to tackling it with a domestic abuse bill. His predecessor, meanwhile, made an equally strong statement when she awarded a knighthood to Geoffrey Boycott: the former cricketer convicted of domestic abuse after he repeatedly punched his girlfriend in 1998. (Boycott has said he ‘doesn’t give a toss’ about the criticism.) The attorney general Geoffrey Cox was recently forced to apologise after making a joke about it, too.
There’s nothing funny about the fact that in 2017, two women died each week and those numbers have only gotten worse.