Karen Ingala Smith

Our fore-sisters built a movement to support women subjected to men’s violence


This was the speech I gave in a pub at Women’s Place’s Leeds meeting on 28 September 2018. A speech that Judith Blake, the first woman Leader of Leeds City Council, prevented me from delivering  at the Civic Hall by cancelling the Woman’s Place booking.

I’ve worked in services for women who have been subjected to men’s violence for 29 years. I’m currently Chief Executive of a charity called nia –  nia started as Hackney Women’s Aid in 1975 – we’re based in East London and provide services to women, girls and children who have been subjected to sexual and domestic violence –  men’s violence.   Our services include community based domestic violence services, East London Rape Crisis, a specialist refuge for women with problematic substance use and one for women fleeing sexual exploitation – prostitution, trafficking, grooming.  That refuge is called Daria House, named after Daria Pionko, who was murdered, here in Leeds, in the so-called safe prostitution managed zone. Prostitution can never be safe.

Of course we would always work with a woman subjected to violence by a female perpetrator – but we’re talking a tiny number of cases a year, whereas every year we work face-to-face  with at least 1,500 women and girls who have been subjected to men’s violence and support many more over the phone or electronically.

In addition to my day job, I run the project Counting Dead Women – commemorating women killed by men in the UK and I’m co-founder of the Femicide Census in partnership with Women’s Aid.

I started Counting Dead Women  almost 7 years ago after the murder – on January 2 2012 – of a young woman in East London. Her name was Kirsty, she was 20 years old. Kirsty had been referred to nia a few weeks before she was killed.  When I heard about her death, I was on annual leave at the time, I  did what I think many of us here would do in similar circumstances, I took to the internet to find out more.  Even though I’ve been working in the field of women affected by men’s violence for years, and Kirsty wasn’t the first woman connected to places where I’d worked who had been killed,  I was perplexed by what I found, because there seemed to be report after report of women who’d been killed by men in week or so since Christmas,  just so many.  I made a note of their names because I wanted to figure out just how many women it was. It turned out that in the first three days of 2012 in the UK, eight women had been killed by men : three days, eight dead women: three shot, one stabbed,  one strangled with a dog lead, one battered with a blunt object before she was smothered with a pillow, one – a 77 year-old woman – beaten to death with her own walking stick, and an 87 year old woman battered to death with blunt force trauma by her own grandson.

Since then, I’ve counted and named 955 women killed by men in the UK – that’s an average of one woman dead at the hands of a man every 2.5 days.   I have read and absorbed the detail of each and every one of these killings of women by men. I have tried to learn something about the life and death of each woman.

I grew up in Huddersfield in the 70s and 80s. That meant growing up under the shadow of Peter Sutcliffe. I was 7 when he killed 28 year-old Wilma McCann (as far as we know, his first murder victim) 12 when he killed his last. He was charged  in 1981 – when I was a few weeks shy of 13 – for murdering 13 women in less than 6 years.  It’s no exaggeration to say that his violence was a formative influence. And the man I thought was my dad was violent and abusive to my mum and us kids, and there was violence and abuse in some of my friends’ early relationships too.

Men’s violence against women has been part of my life in one way or another for longer than I can remember – but  I have a nice home, a partner who I love and who loves me, a good job. I know I am fortunate.  Tonight,  I want to talk to you about why I think women only spaces and services are essential for women and children who have been subjected to men’s violence, women who don’t benefit from the safety and security  that I enjoy. Transgender ideology  creates an environment that is hostile to specialist single-sex services for women who have been subjected to men’s violence and one in which women cannot set our own boundaries.


87% of rapes of adults are committed against women and women are the victim in 80% of domestic homicides.

Males on the other hand

One of the most important ways that we can contribute to creating a safe spacefor women who have experienced mens violence ……. Is quite simply by keeping men out – it’s simple probability  statistics. Men are for more likely to commit violence than women.

I’m not naive or dishonest enough to claim that women are never violent – of course some women are.  But when women are violent  – and remember its statistically way less frequent – when they are they are –  they generally cause less harm than violent men.

So let’s move on to look at males who identify as trans

There is no credible evidence suggesting that males who identify as trans commit violence against women at lower rates than those who do not.  In fact, evidence suggests that trans identified males commit violent crimes at rates comparable to men.  I’m not saying that men who identify as transgender are inherently violent or that all trans identified males are violent – just that they are no less violent that other males.

Despite claims to the contrary, Gender Recognition Certificates  and/or identification as trans does not reduce men’s violence.  They don’t magic away male socialisation. Self –declaration, even worse, would mean that any man who says he is a woman would be able to access specialist services for women subjected to men’s violence,  unless those services understand how to and have the guts to apply Equality Act Exemptions – and there is serious pressure which prevents many, if not most, from doing this.

Some say that ‘we’ – those of us working is specialist women’s services – can use risk assessments to assess whether a male who says he is trans poses a risk to women.

Let’s look at this in relation to women’s refuges:

When a risk assessment is completed with a woman looking to move in to a refuge, time is critical, you need to help her to get to a place of safety and quickly.  She’s either already left her home or is planning to do so urgently because she is in danger.  With risk assessment, you’re assessing the risk she is facing from her partner, planning how she can reduce risks associated with actually leaving,  whether the location of the refuge offers safety and whether she herself would pose a risk to others living in the refuge. Not whether or not she is actually a violent male.

If you expect refuges to accommodate males who identify as trans, you’re asking staff in women’s refuges to differentiate between

Why should we be put in this position? Why should women and children who have experienced men’s violence be put in that position? Why is prioritising the needs of women who have been subjected to men’s violence a problem?

Refuges and other specialist women’s services as women-only spaces,  offer not only  a physical, but also a psychological and emotional escape from men’s domination, control and violence:

Women tell us that they want and value women-only space for safety, empathy, trust, comfort, a focus on women’s needs, expertise, confidence, and because they’re  less intimidating. Women say that a women only space has been an essential part of their recovery from men’s violence and that that being with women who have had similar experiences is a vital part of accepting that they are not to blame.

At least 80%  of males who identify as trans retain a penis. Do adult penises belong on women’s refuges and Rape Crisis centres? Do adult penises belong in women’s prisons? Most women in prison have been victims of crimes far more serious than those for which they were convicted and the majority have been subjected to men’s violence.

Many of the women and children we work with are terrified of males.  They will – like most of us – almost always instantly read someone who might be the most kind and gentle trans identified male in the world – as male – and they may experience terror immediately and involuntarily.  They need and deserve a break.

Women are gas-lighted(manipulated to question their own sanity) by their abusive male partners all the time, it is furthering the abuse to then expect then to share women-only spaces with males who say that they are women because they are not.  The Gender Recognition Act has created what has been described by Professor Kathleen Stock as a legal fiction – males can be recognised as women under the law, but it doesn’t mean that they really are women.  Some people might choose to use preferred pronouns as a sign of courtesy to trans people – but it doesn’t mean that they all believe a person can change sex.  A person cannot change sex.  It undermines our ability to help women believe in themselves if we put them in positions where we expect them to believe this lie.


Some say that men will not go so far as to lie about being trans in order to access vulnerable women. Anyone who believes this has not spent much time with abusive men and has little idea of the lengths that some are prepared to go to.

I know these are  extreme examples, most women who experience men’s violence are not killed and most men do not kill their children  – but  they are  illustrative of the lengths that some men are prepared to go to. And those of us who know violent men or women who have been victims of violent men know that there are too many men who would go exactly this far.

Violent men lie and manipulate. Violent men are prepared to stand in court in a witness box and lie. According to data we found for The Femicide Census, of 37 men who pleaded not guilty to murdering women in 2016, only 1 was actually found not guilty of all charges.

We are told that trans people are disproportionately victims of violence this may be true and as a human being I support efforts to reduce crime, violence, hate and discrimination against anyone. As a feminist I applaud those who reject the trappings of gender but as a feminist I cannot stand by if  women are being sold out in this process.   And if we look at homicide, in the last decade, in the UK, there have been 8 homicides of trans people – all biologically male;  on the other hand, trans people – all of these biologically male –  have killed 11, 4 of their victims were women.  And in the same period, men have killed at least 1,373 women.

There are two different issues here – but both are issues that reduce the safety of women – because of the erosion of women-only space

1)  Males  will lie about being trans in order to access women and children  and 2) males who identify as trans commit violence against women at rates akin to those of males who do not

I dont really care which group were most concerned aboutmy concern is women – especially women who have already been subjected to men’s violence.

This is not about lack of compassion with trans people; it is not about denying anyone’s human rights, anyone’s privacy and dignity. Of course not.  But it is about fighting for women’s human rights. Our right to safety, our right to life, our privacy and our dignity. It is about recognising that women have sex-based rights and protections for a reason.

Men have already killed at least 101 UK women this year.  Many thousands of women have been raped.  Many 1000s live with the threat of violence every day. Victim-survivors of men’s violence deserve the breather, the sanctuary,  that is offered by a women only space. Of course it’s too late for the women who have been killed.  . We need to fight for single sex spaces and services.  Let’s not play Russian roulette with the lives of women who have already suffered men’s violence.

The fight against sexual and domestic violence and abuse has been led by women, supporting women. We wouldn’t have a network of refuges and domestic violence and abuse services or Rape Crisis centres if feminists activists and survivors (and of course many women are both) women like Sandra [McNeill] and Jalna [Hamner] who are both here tonight had not created them because they realised that we – women – needed them, and we – women – wanted to support other women facing what we have faced.  And whilst women have succeeded in creating change and this has always been under threat, we are facing a new backlash. We have not yet managed to eradicate men’s violence against women – nor indeed to overthrow the patriarchy,  not yet.  It is our responsibility – those of us here now – to protect and fight for what our fore-sisters created and continue the legacy that helps women escape and recover from  men’s  violence.

If you would like to donate to support nia, an East London based charity supporting women, girls and children subjected to sexual and domestic violence, please click here .