Data a key tool in tackling fatal male violence against women

Freshfields provided pro bono advice on the creation of the Femicide Census: a ground-breaking census monitoring fatal violence against women that could save lives

Femicide – the killing of women by men – has been identified globally as a leading a cause of premature death for women. In the UK, on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. One incident of domestic violence is apparently reported to the police every minute. 

With the aim of tackling this issue, the Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed by Men creates something that has never been done before – the UK’s first census on women killed by men. The Census was developed by Karen Ingala Smith, working in partnership with Women’s Aid, with pro bono support from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Deloitte. 

So far, the Census collates information on close to 700 women killed by men between 2009 and 2013 in England. It includes a wide range of information about the victims, the perpetrators and the incident of murder itself, including the date, names, police force area, and information about children, recorded motive and weapon. 

The starting point of the Census was the list of names of women killed by men which Karen Ingala Smith had been collecting for more than three years.

Freshfields issued hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to police authorities, local authorities and NHS trusts to verify available data and to identify further victims not included in Karen’s list, and collected further information from publicly available sources, such as press reports and the NHS Trust England website. Freshfields was also involved in analysing, verifying and codifying the information; and advising on the other wide ranging and complex legal issues a project of this nature throws up.

The information is held on a sophisticated, interactive software platform which facilitates analytical searches and statistical breakdowns, allowing comparisons and parallels to be drawn between cases. It identifies stark patterns and trends, the understanding of which is crucial to bring about change. It also provides useful data for those working to prevent male violence against women. 

The intention is that the Census will be made available to experts in this sector in order to enable those patterns and trends to be identified. By providing a clearer picture of femicide and the actions of police, professionals and State agencies, the Census can help bring about better informed strategy, policy and practice responses, with the aim, ultimately, of saving lives.

Already, the Census has gathered information that could lead to a policy change in the way the police respond to calls, namely that knife attacks rather than, as was previously thought, strangulation, are now the main cause of death. As the volume and scale of information collected increases, further trends will be identified to inform and improve policy. For example, it will be possible to track improvements across different police force areas over time to identify learning points which may be shared. 

The accepted view is that data is vital to prevent deaths 

Avril Martindale
Avril Martindale, Freshfields

The fundamental role of systematic and forensic collection and analysis of data in preventing women being killed has long been recognised.  

The Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence imposes due diligence and data collection obligations on States. The UK has signed the Convention but has yet to ratify it

In December 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on femicide urging member states to undertake a range of measures to address gender-related killing of women and girls, including the need to enhance data collection and analysis. In 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women called for improved data collection noting that “the weaknesses in information systems and the poor quality of data are major barriers in investigating femicides, developing meaningful prevention strategies and advocating for improved policies.” 

A number of EU member states, for example Spain, have set up observatories on violence against women which collect data on femicide.  

The UK Government has a national action plan on domestic abuse. It reports regularly on achievements and has set ending violence against women as a ‘strategic vision’. One of the Government’s related action steps is to develop an authoritative evidence base to drive the development of Government policy.

Mari Brennan
Mari Brennan, Freshfields

The bigger picture

The Census is not just about statistics and improving Government policy. A core aim of the Census is to give a voice to the women who have been killed and to serve as a reminder of the person behind each statistic. By raising awareness of the issue, it is hoped that there will be an increase in earlier intervention by professionals. A sad truth is that this phenomenon can often be pigeon-holed as a problem which affects one particular section of society. The Census demonstrates that this is a problem which affects us all, regardless of gender or position in society.

Avril Martindale is a partner and Mari Brennan is an associate at Freshfields

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