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The Observer view: We can no longer turn away, femicide must be tackled now

Observer editorial
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Today, the Observer launches a campaign to tackle femicide, defined as the killing of a woman by a man. We are working in conjunction with Karen Ingala Smith and Clarrie O’Callaghan, creators of the unique Femicide Census. Annually, the census details and analyses the deaths of all women at the hands of men in the UK. In November, for the first time, the census published a 10-year study. In this campaign, we are drawing on its unique database. The title of the 10-year report was “If I’m not in on Friday I might be dead”, the words of Judith Nibbs who was beheaded by her husband of 30 years, Dempsey Nibbs.

Related: End femicide: 278 dead – the hidden scandal of older women killed by men

A woman was killed every three days throughout the decade. Domestic abuse costs £66bn a year in England and Wales. Since 2016, recorded domestic abuse-related crimes have increased by 63%. We have yet to learn the full impact of the pandemic. Last week, the government promised an extra £19m to tackle violence against women and girls. That’s risible. Women’s Aid has calculated that £393m is required to provide sustainable services.

However, as tomorrow is International Women’s Day, first there are achievements to applaud, the results of years of campaigning by feminists and the women’s sector. (Of course, men are also victims but that is not this campaign’s focus.)

The domestic abuse bill may soon become law. Among its measures are a new statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes economic abuse. Other measures outlaw non-fatal strangulation, the “rough sex” defence and post-separation abuse. It is hoped the bill will apply to migrant women without recourse to public funds, currently excluded. The appointment of the very able Nicole Jacobs as the first domestic abuse commissioner should also drive change.

In the UK, at least 2 million people experience domestic abuse every year; the overwhelming majority will not see justice in the courts. Women-only specialist services in the community are vital, yet they have seen funding drastically cut. It is imperative that the bill places a statutory duty on local authorities to fund these organisations and refuges.

Femicide is about domestic abuse but it also refers to women who die outside the domestic sphere. They are victims of strangers, friends, burglars and handymen. The Femicide Census counted 394 women out of the total of 1,450 in this category. They make up one of the main focuses of the three over-arching aims of the Observer’s femicide campaign, Name it, Know it, Stop it.

Why “name it”? The British government is reluctant to employ the word “femicide”. In 2016, for instance, its response to a UN document on femicide failed to directly mention it. The impending new strategy on violence against women and girls must not be so reticent. It matters because we need government to ask, for instance, what are the commonalities and differences between men who commit sexually motivated murders of older women and those who kill girlfriends. As Karen Ingala Smith says: “To solve a problem, you need to be able to say what it is.”

Who is monitoring whether these recommendations are being implemented? When lessons are not learned, women are killed

Why “know it”? As today’s investigation of the killings of older women shows, we know too little, yet the evidence is in plain sight waiting to be gathered. Data collection is vital. We need information on ethnicity and race of victims and perpetrators; proper recording of sexual violence and better identification of hidden homicides including suspicious falls, suicides and drug-related deaths.

Domestic homicide reviews (DHRs) bring all agencies together that have had contact with the victim and the perpetrator to analyse what went wrong and make recommendations to prevent errors recurring. A DHR Home Office study noted the repetition of recommendations. They include the need for better record keeping, risk assessment and collaboration between agencies, and specialist training for health professionals, including GPs. As Professor Khatidja Chantler of Manchester Metropolitan University, who has analysed 317 DHRs, asks: “Who is monitoring whether these recommendations are being implemented and how well?” When lessons are not learned, women are killed.

Jacobs and the Centre for Women’s Justice are rightly fighting for a properly funded national femicide oversight mechanism. This would include a central repository of DHRs and all other inquiries relating to femicides, including coroners’ reports. The domestic abuse and victims’ commissioners also need the resources and staff to detect when recommendations are not implemented so action can be taken to prevent future deaths.

Finally, “stop it” requires an ambitious strategy directed at sex discrimination, misogyny and attitudes that blame the victim. It requires more research on what might make abusive men desist. Mental health, addiction, abuse in childhood, attitudes to women and beliefs about masculinity all contribute to men becoming controlling and violent to women. In addition, the tools to assess risk prompt concern. They are better suited to younger than older women. As the excellent work by Charlotte Barlow and Sandra Walklate of Lancaster and Liverpool universities shows, coercive control is a pervasive pattern of abuse, while the risk tools used by police give more importance to physical violence. What counts as risk has to be improved. The National Police Chiefs’ Council says that training on coercive control is being improved – but police also need more resources and time.

Name it, know it, stop it. The pandemic has kept a spotlight on domestic abuse and femicide for an unprecedented entire year. We can no longer turn away. If femicide isn’t tackled now, then when?