Femicide – Men’s Fatal Violence Against Women Goes Beyond Domestic Violence by @K_IngalaSmith

Cross-posted from: Karen Ingala Smith
Originally published: 18.05.15

I wrote this piece for Women’s Aid’s magazine Safe:

The Office for National Statistics released findings from the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales on 12 February. Men continue to be more likely to be killed than women, there were 343 male victims compared to 183 female victims (of all ages including children and babies). Court proceedings had concluded for 355 (55%) of 649 suspects relating to 536 homicides.  For those suspects where proceedings had concluded, 90% (338 suspects) were male and 10% were female (38 suspects). Men are more likely to be killed, but their killers are overwhelmingly men. Women are less likely to be killed, when they are, they are overwhelmingly killed by a man.  When we’re talking about fatal violence, we are almost always talking about men’s violence.

The words homicide, from homo “man” and cidium “act of killing”, and manslaughter “ma” and “slæht or slieht” “the act of killing”  are identical etymologically but have developed different legal meanings.  Like the word “murder” both could be described as being ‘gender neutral’, but they are not, both render the killing of women invisible.  The word femicide seeks to address this.  The first modern and feminist definition of ‘Femicide’ is attributed to Jill Radford and Diana Russell (1991). They used it in the context of feminist analysis of men’s violence against women to address the sex-specific killings of women. Whilst some contentions remain over a definition, the definition ‘the killings of women because they are women’ is most frequently used. As well as women killed through intimate partner violence, femicide includes (but is not limited to): women killed by other family members, the torture and misogynist slaying of women including serial killings, the killing of women and girls in the name of “ honour”, targeted killing of women and girls in the context of armed conflict, dowry-related killings of women, female infanticide and gender-based sex selection feticide, killings of women due to accusations of sorcery and/or witchcraft, the deaths of women associated with gangs, organiSed crime, drug dealers, human trafficking and the proliferation of small arms, the killing of women and girls because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and FGM related deaths. Femicide can include women killed by women if the motive is associated with sexist or misogynistic patriarchal values, but is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.

Femicide is a global issue.  About 66,000 women and girls are violently killed every year, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey.1 But comparing county-by-county data is challenging, partly because there isn’t a globally accepted definition, or even a globally agreed need for a definition, but also because most countries’ data-collection systems do not record the necessary information, whether that is the sex of the victim and perpetrator, their relationship or any known motives for the killing.  The data that is available suggests that countries with the highest femicide levels correspond to those with the highest rates of fatal violence. El Salvador has the highest femicide rate (12.0 per 100,000 female population), followed by Jamaica (10.9), Guatemala (9.7), and South Africa (9.6). Half of the countries with the top highest estimated femicide rates are in Latin America, with South Africa and Russian and Eastern European countries having disproportionately high rates.  It should be noted that high rates of female infanticide, sex-selective and forced abortion challenge the absence of countries including India and China  from this data. England and Wales’ femicide rate, by comparison, was 0.66 per 100,000 female population for 2013/14.

The ONS findings for 2013/14, consistent with previous years, found that women were far more likely than men to be killed by partners or ex-partners than men.  84 women, around 53% of female homicide victims (over 16) had been killed by their current or a former partner, compared to 23 men (7% of male victims over 16).  The ONS definition of partner/ex-partner homicide includes  killings by a “spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend/girlfriend, ex-spouse/ex-cohabiting partner/ex-boyfriend/girlfriend and adulterous relationship” but also “lover’s spouse and emotional rival”.  Combining data for 2011/12 and 2013/14, the ONS tell us that of 57 men killed in partner/ex-partner homicides, 21 of them, over a third, were killed by a man.  Of these 21 men killed by men in the context of partner/ex-partner homicides, 14 of them were killed by a lover’s spouse/love rival.  Of 249 women killed in partner/ex-partner homicides over the same 3 years, 247 were killed by a man, one by a woman (in one case the primary suspect is listed as unknown).  None of the female victims of partner/ex-partner homicide were killed by the spouse of their lover or an emotional rival. Similarly, no male victims of partner/ex-partner homicide were killed by a female spouse of their lover or a female emotional rival. Not only are men killed in the context of an intimate relationship less likely to be killed by their actual partner or ex-partner, they are much more likely than women to be killed by someone of the same sex.

Another important difference between women and men killed in the context of intimate partner violence is the history of the relationship.  When men kill women partners or ex-partners, this usually follows months or years of them abusing her, when women kill male partners or ex-partners, it is usually after months or years of having been abused by the man they have killed.2 So, there are four important differences when we compare women and men killed in the context of a current or previous intimate partnership (figures from the ONS 2011/12 to 2013/14 data):

  • Far fewer men than women are killed in the context of intimate partner violence (57 v. 249)
  • Men are much more likely to be killed by the spouse of a partner or a love rival (14/57 v 0/249)
  • Men are much more likely than women to have been killed by someone of the same sex (21/57 v 1/249)
  • Men are more likely to have been killed by someone they were abusing, women are more likely to have been killed by someone they were being abused by.

If we look at men who kill women (who are not current or ex- intimate partners), it is clear that they have more in common with men who kill female current or former  partners, than the much smaller number of  women who kill male former partners. The concept of femicide, making connections between all forms of men’s fatal violence against women provides a more useful theoretical framework than comparing people killed in the context of intimate partner relationships across the sexes. Sex inequality in patriarchal society cannot be ignored.

Since January 2012, I’ve been recording and commemorating UK women killed by men in a project called Counting Dead Women.  Looking at my own records for the same year as the ONS data, the next biggest group of women killed by men was women killed by their sons.3 Between April 2013 and March 2014, at least 12 women were killed by their sons, two more by their son-in-laws, three by their grandsons and one by her step-grandson. These patterns are not replicated in rates of women killing older male relatives: fathers, fathers-in-law or grandfathers. A further three women were killed by their fathers, and one more by her step-father.

Male entitlement is a deadly seam running through male violence against women, whether coercive control, rape, prostitution, trafficking or femicide.  Prostitution, pornography and trafficking are forms of violence against women, reducing women to commodities, possessions and objects for market exchange. Men are the purchasers, controllers and profit-makers, this market of women cannot be extricated from a context of inequality between women and men. At least 5 women killed last year (the same year as the ONS data) were women exploited through pornography and/or prostitution. There were over 64,000 sexual offences recorded by police last year, overwhelmingly committed by men, with young women those most likely to have experienced sexual assault. 1.4 million domestic violence assaults against women were recorded. When men kill women, regardless of their relationship or lack of it, they are doing so in the context of a society in which men’s violence against women is entrenched and systemic. When misogyny, sexism and the objectification of women are so pervasive that they are all but inescapable, can a man killing a women ever not be a sexist act?

In addition to the women killed in partner/ex-partner homicide and those killed by sons or other family members:

  • One woman was found dead, hanging with a tow rope belonging to the man accused of killing her around her neck. She had more than 30 injuries to her face and arms. He was found sleeping on a blood-stained bed beneath her dead naked body by police who had been called by a neighbour who found water dripping through her ceiling.  The man, who had been in a relationship with her,  claimed not to remember anything that had happened for five hours before police woke him up in bed.  In the weeks before her death, he had sent her a text which read “You’re getting tied up, I will treat you like a random victim, gonna do you Manchester style.”  He claimed she had died during a consensual sex-game and was found not guilty of murder and not guilty of manslaughter. He walked free. The influence of eroticised violence against women cannot be disregarded in this woman’s death.
  • Glen Nelson murdered Krishnamaya Mabo, the court where he was convicted heard that he had gone out seeking a woman to rape. The sentencing judge commented “He killed her deliberately to prevent her testifying about the attempted rape. The violence and sexual assault were inextricably interwoven.”
  • 23-year-old Jamie Reynolds murdered 17-year-old Georgia Williams. During his trial Prosector David Crigman said Reynolds carried out a ‘scripted, sadistic and sexually-motivated murder’ and described him as ‘a sexual deviant’ who has had ‘a morbid fascination in pornography depicting violence towards young women in a sexual context since at least 2008’.  When arrested he had 16,800 images and 72 videos of extreme pornography including digitally modified  images of up to eight other women he personally knew in which ropes had been added around their necks.  Georgia Williams and Jamie Reynolds were ‘friends’, they had not been partners.

Sexual violence runs through these murders and many others that are not men murdering partners or ex-partners. Gender, the social constructs of masculinity and femininity are also integral.  One of the significant achievements of feminism is getting male violence against women into the mainstream and onto the policy agenda.  One of the threats against this achievement is that those with power take the concepts and under the auspices of dealing with the problem shake some of the most basic elements of feminist understanding right out of them.  It is important that we do not allow the connection between the different forms of men’s violence against women to be lost. We need to name the problem as men’s violence against women and we cannot allow a ‘gender’-neutral approach to domestic violence intimate-partner to obscure this.

On the same day that the ONS released their data from the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales, Women’s Aid and myself launched The Femicide Census. The Femicide Census was built with support from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Deloitte LLP and for the first time will allow detailed tracking and analysis of fatal male violence against women in England. So far data of 694 women killed by men in the years 2009 to 2013 has been collected.

It is self-evident that each woman killed by a man is a unique individual, as is each man who kills a woman or women. The circumstances around each killing are never identical.   But that doesn’t make them isolated incidents.  By refusing to see a pattern we are refusing to see the myriad connections between incidents of men’s fatal violence against women; and by refusing to see the connections we are closing our eyes to the commonalities in the causes. When we link the killings of women by men and stop thinking about isolated incidents, we begin to see the real scale of the problem. The Femicide Census will contribute to increasing awareness of men’s violence and to greater knowledge and analysis of men’s violence against women and girls, it is a crucial step towards prevention.  We also want The Femicide Census to commemorate women, to remember the women and girls who have been killed and the friends and families that mourn them.

To reduce femicide we need to protect the network of specialist services dealing with all forms of men’s violence against women. Refuges in particular can provide a crucial place to escape, though given that women killed years after the end of a violent relationship are not rare, it cannot be assumed that women will be safe after leaving a refuge and this may be particularly important in the context of on-going child contact.  In addition, community based support, ‘Healthy relationships’ education, policing,  prosecutions,  and work with perpetrators are all vitally important, but none of this will tackle the root cause of men’s violence against women.

Men’s violence against women is not natural and it is not inevitable, but it is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men and underpinned by other manifestations of that inequality: gender and/or sex roles, sexism, misogyny, and the commodification and objectification of women. We need to name men’s violence. We need to keep the connections between the different forms of men’s violence at the forefront of our analysis. We need to say that all the women killed by men were important. If we don’t make the connections and look for the true root causes, we will not reduce the numbers of women being killed by men.  By enabling us to record and analyse comprehensive data on women killed by men, the Femicide Census can be a step towards the change that we want to create.

1 Small Arms Survey, Femicide: A Global Problem

2 Browne et al., 1998; Websdale, 1999; Dugan et al., 2003.

3 Karen Ingala Smith, Killed by their Sons, 2015

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