Daily Telegraph, Friday 14 February 2020
There are few subjects where your sex matters more. New figures show that while fewer men are becoming homicide victims in England and Wales, the number of female victims has increased for the second year in a row. It is now back at a level last recorded in March 2006, confirming widespread fears that the criminal justice system is failing women.
First, the statistics: there were 241 female homicide victims in the year to March 2019, a ten per cent increase on the previous year. The number of male victims fell by 11 per cent, but there are even more sex-related disparities in the figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
While it’s true that men are more likely to be murdered than women, the kind of violence faced by the two sexes is very different. The ONS figures paint a stark picture of the impact of domestic violence, showing that almost half of adult female victims were killed in a domestic homicide. The comparable figure for male victims was just four per cent.
We’ve known this for ages but it needs spelling out again: women are most at risk from husbands, boyfriends and family members – brothers, fathers and so on. Many of us live in fear of assault by men we don’t know as we’re walking home on a dark night, yet strangers accounted for only six per cent of fatal attacks on women and girls.
Of the 99 women who died in a domestic homicide last year, 80 were killed by a current or ex-partner. It’s worth saying that even these numbers may be under-estimates, because there were 76 homicides with a female victim (37 per cent of the overall total) where no suspect was identified.
The most common method of killing, for both male and female victims, was by a knife or other sharp instrument. But in a statistic that raises more questions about the so-called ‘rough sex’ defence in murder trials, women are far more likely to be strangled – 17 per cent of all female victims died in this way, compared to only three per cent of men.
Why isn’t the government reeling under the impact of these dreadful figures? It’s almost a decade since a senior Conservative minister, Theresa May, unveiled a national violence against women and girls strategy, with a promise to tackle domestic violence supposedly at its heart.
Back in 2011, when she was Home Secretary, May declared that she wanted to see an end to all forms of violence against women and girls. Later, as prime minister, she described domestic violence as a ‘life-shattering and absolutely abhorrent crime’ – and promised to introduce a new law to help victims.
Yet there’s been no appreciable effect on the number of women killed by a current or ex-partner. It’s remained steady, at an average of 82 per year over the last decade, although the overall number of female homicide victims is rising.
So what’s gone wrong? Well, we’re still waiting for that new law, with a new domestic violence bill repeatedly delayed in Parliament. It’s still not clear when it will be reintroduced , an omission that speaks volumes about the priorities of ministers.
It’s not as if they’re unaware of the dangers women face – and where they face them. Half of the female victims of lethal violence in this country die at the hands of a husband, ex-boyfriend or male relative – and many of the attacks take place in the home. For too many women, closing the front door means stepping into danger in the very place they should feel safe. Why do we tolerate the home being such a dangerous place for women?
It’s undeniable that some of these victims have been let down by the police or other agencies, who sometimes show poor judgement when it comes to assessing risk. Four years ago, Katrina O’ Hara, 44, was stabbed to death in Dorset by an ex-boyfriend just days after she reported him to the police for harassing her. Stuart Thomas had already broken into Ms O’ Hara’s house on a couple of occasions before he attacked her outside the hairdressing salon where she worked.
Organisations that work with victims of domestic violence know perfectly well that the that the home is the very opposite of a safe place for a significant number of women. Whether they live in a council flat or a five-bedroom house, they may not have the resources to go elsewhere – and cuts to refuge places means even desperate women are being turned away.
If ministers really wanted to reduce the scandalous number of female homicide victims, they would reverse those cuts – and place a statutory duty on local authorities to provide housing for women leaving violent relationships. Protecting vulnerable women costs money but lives won’t be saved by promises, which is all we’ve had for the last ten years.