The systems in place to protect women from male violence are not working. The Femicide Census, launched today, makes that clear. It gathers together information that has been hidden in plain sight, in a plethora of Domestic Homicide Reviews, police statistics, local press articles, reports in which "a body of a woman was found" and "a man is being detained", "the police are not looking for anyone else", while luckily "members of the public are not at risk" because it was "an isolated incident".
The notion that domestic violence is a private matter persists to such an extent that the killing of women by men hasn't been acknowledged as a major problem confronting our society. Collectively, and at government level, we have been comfortable with avoiding joining the dots. It should surprise us that it has been left to an independent campaigner, a charity and a law firm to compile the first ever comprehensive collection of data on this problem. But it isn't surprising, because if you name a problem, you have to get serious about solving it, find out what's going wrong, strive for solutions.
At Women's Aid, that's precisely what we are hoping for: that the Femicide Census will put violence against women centre stage in social policy, no longer to be seen merely as a complicating factor in child welfare, mental health problems, homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse. We want it to inform better protection for women, a recognition of the cultural factors that lead to male violence against women, and a response from all agencies that takes reports of domestic violence seriously and puts women's long term safety first.
Some pretty fundamental changes are needed. For a start, we need to end the myth that domestic violence is a "gender neutral" phenomenon. Gender is fundamental and the relationship between gender roles and violent behaviour is obvious in the data. Unless we accept that this is a fact, and that it's a fact we no longer want to tolerate, we will get nowhere.
Our response to individual victims also needs radical improvement. We know that domestic violence situations can change dramatically in a very short time. Many years of secret coercive control by a man who has never or rarely been physically violent often means a woman is in more danger, should she decide to leave him, than a woman who has reported several serious assaults to the police. We know that enabling survivors to achieve long term independence and wellbeing, by preserving and building on their own resources, and meeting their needs for support, is what will keep them safe.
However, in recent years, almost all central government investment in domestic violence services has been channelled into ensuring that women who report their abuse to the criminal justice system are assessed to see whether they are "high risk", and that, if they are, they receive support from an independent adviser, while key local agencies meet to discuss their case at a Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference. Meanwhile, the funding of both longer term specialist support and preventive work, and any help for the majority of survivors who do not involve the police, has been lost in the rapidly reducing pot of general local authority funding, fighting a losing battle against other local priorities, and eroded by ill-thought-through commissioning decisions at local level.
Women are being killed weekly. And the thousands upon thousands of women being abused who are afraid to disclose, or are blamed for their abuse by state agencies, or go back to the perpetrator because otherwise they will lose their children, or who lose all support once the "risk" has reduced but are in desperate danger when the abuser comes out of prison, or who fall through what passes for a safety net in other myriad ways, can only add to their number.
We hope the Femicide Census will be a wake up call to our imminent new government, of whatever colour, to ensure that one agency locally is held accountable for understanding and meeting the needs of women experiencing and escaping domestic violence, to preserve the national network of life-saving women's refuges, and above all to make solving this crisis one of the most urgent social policy priorities.
For more information on the 'Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men', visit the Women's Aid website