Image by Ben Thomson
A leading cause of premature death for women around the world is men, but there is hesitation to acknowledge this fact. Meet the women fighting to get femicide victims the attention they deserve.
Samantha Sykes was 18 when she was lured to the West Yorkshire flat of her friend's ex-boyfriend, who stabbed both her and her friend's younger sister to death.
The incident, which occurred back in 2012, was the source of much media interest at the time—not least because the perpetrator was an Afghan asylum seeker. But the victims are just two among the almost 1,000 women killed by men in England and Wales since 2009, whose murders have gone largely unreported.
The inaugural Femicide Census, released last month, aims to document the details of every such death in the UK, filling an informational black-hole with a clear and striking picture of men's fatal violence against women.
Femicide cuts across geographic, economic, cultural and educational lines, as well as age groups.
According to the Small Arms Survey, femicides account for nearly 20 percent of global homicides, or about 66,000 women annually. By documenting the circumstances of each killing—including the perpetrator, his motive, and the weapon—this census aims to highlight femicide above all as a hate crime, to ensure threats of violence and the killing of women is taken seriously by authorities and the media.
Another key aspect of the project is remembering the victims as individuals, through stories from the victims' family members. "Often I think women and young girls who are murdered become a statistic," Julie Warren-Sykes, the mother of Samantha Sykes, noted in support of the project, which was published by the grassroots NGO Women's Aid. "But this database actually represents real people... they were failed by society."
The bloody toll of this failure has been tracked over the past five years by Karen Ingala Smith, whose blog Counting Dead Women has provided the foundation for the census. As Karen explains, her efforts were prompted in 2012 by a spate of killings of women in her local borough of East London.
"When I started searching for details online," she says, "I came across a whole lot of incidents, and I thought my goodness, how many women have actually been killed?'"
Her research soon highlighted a significant gap in statistics that specifically address the gender-based murder of women by men—what the UN and other bodies define as femicide. The data illustrating the continuing patterns of femicide in the UK was hidden in plain sight inside official homicide reviews, police statistics, and local press articles.
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"I had to ask myself why the data-set I wanted wasn't available," she says. "If we don't look at the full picture, [and] actually count it, then we have no idea what we are dealing with."
The statistics in Karen's census paint a concrete picture of femicide—a crime that has been largely unrecognized, despite being the leading cause of premature death for women around the world. It shows that, on average, two women are killed each week in the UK by a partner or ex-partner (in the latter case, most within a year of separating). It also shows that femicide cuts across geographic, economic, cultural and educational lines, as well as age groups.
The overwhelming risk factor, it seems, is proximity: Sixty-four percent of women were killed by a current or ex-partner and the remaining majority by a father, brother, son, colleague, employee, client or friend. Only a fraction of murders (less than 10 percent) were committed by male strangers.
But these clear correlations are typically air-brushed away in reports that obscure the gendered nature of the violence. "Too often, the police and media treat the killing of women as an isolated incident 'with no further threat to the public,' rather than as a pattern," explains Polly Neate, CEO of Women's Aid, which published the census.
"The dots have never been joined up, and nobody acknowledges it. But it is important to indicate the relationship between victims and the perpetrators, otherwise we are missing the fact that women are being killed with alarming frequency by people they should trust the most."
As Neate explains, the gender-specific nature of the crime is key to responding to it—for example, through shaping government policy and police handling of abuse cases. But violence against women remains a glaring omission from hate crime legislation in countries around the world, including the UK, US and Australia. Hate crime definitions instead seem to encompass every other category of bias-related violence, including race, religion, disability, and sexuality.
Hate crime definitions seem to encompass every other category of bias-related violence, including race, religion, disability, and sexuality.
In 2009, for example, President Obama expanded US hate crimes legislation to provide greater protection against violence on the grounds of sexual orientation as well as (perceived) gender identity. However, the new laws still fail to identify women as a specific, significant target of abuse—an exclusion that campaigners say reflects a broader reluctance to acknowledge the widespread nature of hatred of women.
"We [can't] be afraid to say that women are experiencing violence because they are women," says Neate, who supports the campaign to enshrine hate crimes against women in UK law. "Violence against women has its roots in misogyny, but we are reluctant to accept that fact."
Thankfully, some authorities are refusing to shy away from naming hate-crimes against women. The UK's Nottinghamshire Police Force recently spurned critics by expanding its categories of hate-crime to include misogynistic incidents.
The force now defines misogynistic hate crimes as incidents including "behaviour targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman"—a classification it hopes will encourage women to report abuse or harassment that might not typically be considered a crime. Other police forces around England have since expressed interest in following suit.
Although she supports the push for greater acknowledgement and more severe punishment of hate crimes against women, Karen has reservations that focusing on official definitions alone might just isolate or legislate-away a more endemic social problem. "It's not institutions that are creating the problem," she says. "Institutions are made up of people who are subject to the same cultural norms as us, so they just reflect dominant ideas."
Indeed, the antagonism—or outright hatred—levelled at those campaigning around violence against women underscores the pervasiveness of misogynistic attitudes in the mainstream. The clock had hardly ticked past 8am on the morning of the Femicide Census release before social media began erupting with abuse, and a predictable array of responses along the lines of "women are just as bad as men."
"Sadly, it seems that those of us raising feminist issues—rather than changing minds of people—are just exposing ourselves to more sexism and misogyny," Karen says. Much of this resistance, as she sees it, comes from government and social pressure to make public policy and debates gender-neutral, obscuring the reality of female inequality.
"The most important thing is to look at equality and the stereotypes around masculinity and femininity that are the basis of the problem—be it in objectification by the media, prostitution, or, for example, the revival of pink toys and clothes for girls. At the same time as having more freedom for women, we are also creating a backlash, reinforcing gender much more viciously, and making women less valued."
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