Can we talk about the claim that since lockdown, five women a week have been killed by men in the UK, because I don’t think it’s true

I’ve been Counting Dead Women, women killed by men in the UK since January 2012 and as one of the founders of the Femicide Census have access to records of women killed by men in the UK going back to 2009. From this, I can say that we know that on average since 2009, a woman has been killed by a man in the UK every three days. Because that’s an average, sometimes it is more frequently than that, and sometimes it’s less. It means that we know that the oft quoted statistic, that two women a week are killed in England and Wales by their partner or ex, is inaccurate. My work on this issue means I’m often well placed to have a sense when something unusual is happening, and as importantly, I have access to information to check out my hunches, The Femicide Census.

This – noticing something unusual was going on – happened last March, just after the first national lockdown.  In the first week of lockdown, 10 women (and two children) were killed by men. That’s not one woman every 3 days, it’s one woman every 16.8 hours. It wasn’t two women a week, it was ten in a week. The oldest was 80, the youngest was 24 years old. For seven women, the suspect was her husband, partner or lover, for one he was her son, for another he was her father and one woman was killed by a stranger.  The next week, three women were killed by men, and the same the following week. 3 weeks into lockdown, 15 women had been killed by men. So, it’s true, for the first three weeks of lockdown, on average, five women a week had been killed by men, through this was largely driven by the 10 women killed in the first week. This was the snapshot for a specific period in time, 23 March – 12 April 2020.  This was three times higher than the average for the same three weeks since 2009 (five), though the actual numbers had varied between nine women in 2009 and two women in 2013, 2018 and 2019. It’s not the only time when for a short period of time there has been an atypically high number of women killed. Another example is January 2012, when in the first three days of the year, eight women were killed by men and don’t know if I’d have even started Counting Dead Women if that hadn’t coincided with the murder of Kirsty Treloar.

I shared this information at the time, there was a lot of interest. If I’m honest, I will say it pissed me off, why was one woman every three days barely worthy of mention? I wasn’t impressed by attempts to frame the killings of women in 2020 as ‘due to COVID-19’ and wrote this piece, Coronavirus Doesn’t Cause Men’s Violence Against Women about the suspected levels of men’s fatal violence against women  and what might or might not be causing an apparent increase.

But the things I’m hearing now are at best: ‘it was five women a week during lockdown’, and at the most inaccurate: ‘it’s been five women a week killed by current or former partners since lockdown.’

Because of the work by The Femicide Census, we know that there have been patterns in the numbers of women killed by men over time. Between 2009 and 2018, on average, more women tended to be killed in April than in any other month, followed by December. I was able to use information from the Femicide Census database to compare how many women had been killed in the same time period (week beginning, 23 March, week beginning 30 March, week beginning 6 April and so on) for every week since 2009.  I did that for every week of the initial national lockdown, or until 31 May.

By 31 May 2020, I was aware of 26 women who were suspected of having been killed by men in the 10 weeks since 23 March. The average for those same 10 weeks between 2009 and 2019 was 24.7 women, the highest was 30 women in 2010, the lowest was 17 women in 2013. In other words, the rates of women being killed by men had returned to pretty much an average level of unacceptable for the time of year and that continues for the rest of 2020.

I should mention that the numbers I used from 2019 and 2020 were based on media searches alone, we hadn’t analysed the Freedom of Information requests for the Femicide Census for 2019 at that point and we wouldn’t be sending those for 2020 out until 2021.  I am expecting that the real numbers for 2019 and 2020 will be a bit higher.  I am also worried about what might happen as we move on from the pandemic, if we move on from the pandemic, because another of the findings of the Femicide Census, is that 43% of women killed by their partners do so at some point during or after the process of separation. Will more women leave abusive partners as lockdown eases again? Will we see this reflected in lethal violence from jealous, possessive and controlling men?  

It’s also important to mention that at both Counting Dead Women and the Femicide Census include all women killed by men. There are some important differences in the characteristics between women killed by current and former partners, for example the presence of coercive control, or, what would good support services look like? But there are some commonalities too. What’s the impact of the status of women? What’s the impact of the sexual objectification of women? What’s the impact of male entitlement? I believe that we can learn something about the role of such issues if we look at the killing of women by men, rather than restricting ourselves to current and former partners only, even though the latter make up the greatest proportion of femicides in the UK (on average 62%).

Data matters, but it’s important that we use it correctly. It’s important that we don’t extrapolate what was happening at a moment in time to what happens all the time. We should not need to exaggerate the numbers of women being killed by men to make people with influence address men’s violence against women. If we think 15 women in three weeks is unacceptable and worthy of outrage, surely, we’re not saying that the average number for three weeks, seven women, (one woman every 3 days) is fine and nothing to rise up against?

Am I naive – obviously I am – in the belief I had that facts were checked before use in the national media? Can those with editorial roles stop the use of ‘two women a week’ and respect the work of those of us who have tried to get accurate data?  How does a claim that five women a week have been killed by current or former partners since lockdown, get through whatever editorial process is supposed to happen?

Most importantly though and as always, we must remember that dead women are never merely numbers, data or statistics. They were real living women once, most of them leaving family and friends who loved them shocked and in mourning, so many people left with a gap that they’ll feel the pain of for the rest of their lives.  We should try to do the right thing by these women and try to make changes that will protect the women and girls of the future. What are we going to do to end men’s violence against women and girls?