I live on a nice road, the kind where people do traffic surveys to monitor the number of cars and hold neighbourly Christmas get-togethers. In the last 12 months, not a hundred metres from my home in these tree-lined streets, the peace has been disturbed not once, but twice, by the blare of sirens and the repetitive beat of police evidence tape flapping in the wind. Three women were killed in their homes, minutes away from mine. It can happen anywhere.
I have sat in many rooms discussing the murder of women by their partners, ex partners and family members over the last decade. In every meeting, a briefed minister reads out a statistic about how two women are murdered like this a week. Hell, I have said it myself. It is not even accurate; it is just a neat way of spreading the murder of women over the course of a year, to help us express an appalling fact. The more reliable statistic is that every three days a woman is killed by a man. I am terrified that we have become too used to the horror of those statistics; that we have learned as policy-makers to accept the numbers as just the way things are.
We should not try to rationalise these murders. These women are human beings. And the fact is, these women would not be dead if they had not been women. The statistic has morphed into a stubborn inevitability, that this will always happen, like car crime or burglary. It misses the fact that the reason they are dead is because women still have a lesser position in society; and if they cannot be controlled by other means, then fatal violence is the thing that will keep them in their place.
The jury in the case of the killing of two of my neighbours was told that their killer was “a controlling man who limited his wife’s freedom. He simply couldn’t accept the marriage was over and he killed her in a drug-fuelled attack”. In this case, the killer thought, without any evidence, that his wife was having an affair with their neighbour. He also killed the neighbour’s wife. The women of my neighbourhood were the ones laid to rest.
This week, in time for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a group of researchers and campaigners have released the UK Femicide Census 2008-2019. It picks out trends: 62 per cent of women killed by men were killed by a current or former partner; of the 888 women killed like this, at least 378 (43 per cent) were known to have separated, or taken steps to separate, from the perpetrator.
The report tells us of the grim reality of “overkill”; a term used to describe the use of excessive force that goes further than what is necessary to achieve its goal. There was evidence of overkill in 55 per cent of cases (744) in the census and violation of the body in 26 per cent. My near neighbour had 81 injuries on her body.
The regularity of excessive force used, and the incidences of men becoming violent because their partners were attempting to escape, speaks of a desire from the perpetrator to humiliate, mutilate and control. No longer should we feel comfortable with the expectation that every few days, women will die in this manner. The double murder, yards from my home, didn’t let everyone else off the hook that week. It seems almost guaranteed that this rate will not fall. How can that be acceptable?
Collating information about victims and how they died is crucial. And we have to go even further than just gathering data about the backgrounds of women in individual cases. It’s crucial we understand these deaths within the wider context of societal inequality. We have to ask – why? The prevalence rates for all types of domestic abuse is, for example, higher for women who identified as LGBTQ+. Disabled victims are likely to suffer more severe abuse, and for a longer period of time. Black and minority ethnic women face racism and misogyny. Violence destroys women in different ways. All deserve protection.
We must seize the fact that something can and must be done; these deaths are not merely an inevitability. The Domestic Abuse Bill is a start, but it is clearly not enough. The government could ensure that the domestic abuse sector does not have to ration their services to those who are at the highest risk of death. At the moment, in huge parts of the country, you have to be in grave danger in order to access a domestic abuse support worker. Imagine that in other spheres? Imagine that in diabetes care; that we only gave out insulin to someone in hypoglycaemic shock, never offering them anything that would prevent it.
Worse still, think about the 64 per cent of victims turned away from refuge; imagine we only offered diabetes treatment to every third diabetic? Rightly, there would be national outrage. But that is exactly how women’s safety is resourced year in, year out; short term crisis budgets, with very few long term goals. Expendable lives. Ministers love to tell people to come forward; they seem less keen to make sure there is somewhere for people to come forward to.
I cannot bear the warm words, the statistics and the same outcome any longer. Efforts to legislate are welcome, but they have got to be matched with real determined grit to deliver on the ground. I want to live in a place where the “elimination of violence against women” is more than just the name of a day in the calendar. I want to live in a place where it is an actual goal, with targets that have to be met.
The only target we are currently meeting each year is that a women is murdered by a partner or ex-partner every few days. Every single one of them was someone’s neighbour. Tomorrow it could be yours.