Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census
by Ian Sinclair
8 March 2017
In early January 2012 Karen Ingala Smith, Chief Executive of the London-based domestic violence charity NIA, noticed an upsurge in the number of news stories about women killed by men. She started to make a list of the names, and then read a police statement that referred to the killing of one woman as “an isolated incident”.
This, she tells me when I visit her in her east London office, made her cross – and also motivated her to continue counting: “So many women in so few days. How can this be not seen as part of a trend? How can this be seen as ‘an isolated incident’?”
Gaining support from the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and another generous donor, Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women blog became the basis for the ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’. Published by Women’s Aid and NIA at the end of last year, the landmark report shows how, far from being “isolated incidents”, 936 women and girls over 14 years of age were killed by men in England and Wales between 2009 and 2015. Most women who were killed were found to be killed by a man known to them, with 64 percent killed by men identified as current of former partners.
Though she has years of professional experience of Intimate Partner Violence, 49-year old Ingala Smith says several findings surprised her, such as the number of older women killed in burglaries and robberies. “I would also say the number of women being killed by sons was also something I hadn’t expected to see”, she notes. “And the ages that women continue to be killed by intimate partners. That, again, is sad to see. You think of the years and years of abuse that a woman has lived with before she is finally killed in her 70s or 80s by a man who she has been with for years.”
Most shockingly, Ingala Smith explains how the report highlights what is called “overkill”, which she describes as “when men submit women to a level of violence that killed them several times over. So not only has he killed her once, he continues to injure her with an injury that would have been fatal had she not already been killed.”
Does recording these horrendous crimes take an emotional toll? “Yes, in a word”, she replies. “I’ve sort of developed a pattern now where at the end of every month I review the month and total women for that month, and update my blog on a monthly basis. And when I used to do that at first I literally did have a cry after every time I did it, sit in a darkened room and want to be on my own for a little while. Now I just get on with it.” However, she is concerned she doesn’t always get as upset as she used to. “I don’t ever want to be unshockable”, she says.
Though the media often represents violence against women and girls as perpetrated by a stranger down a dark alley or a predatory taxi driver, Ingala Smith says the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home.
Surely we are talking about an epidemic of violence against women, I ask, thinking about the 2013 Crime Survey of England and Wales’s estimate that 28 percent of women have experienced domestic abuse? “We are talking about a massive scale problem”, she confirms, though she prefers not to use the word ‘epidemic’ because that “implies a medicalisation” of the issue. She argues this violence “affects all women even if we are not directly affected. I think all women are controlled by male violence and all men benefit from male violence even if they themselves never perpetrate it.”
There is, it seems, a deep-seated problem with the dominant type of masculinity men are expected to embody today. Ingala Smith agrees: “It’s about the social construction of masculinity and the social construction of femininity. So it’s about gender rather than about biology.”
“I think you have to look at the relationship between women and men and everything that creates the inequality between women and men”, she continues. “So entitlement, patriarchal laws, sexism, the objectification of women – all these create a context where women are seen as less than, and men expect control and dominance. I think that reproduces itself in some intimate relationships.”
Turning to solutions, Ingala Smith says reforming the criminal justice system and policing is important, though she believes they won’t solve the problem on their own. “If we look at the things that make men men and make women women, if we tackle those, so gender inequality, objectification of women, sexism etc. – that is where the big work has to go.” The Femicide Census itself argues for “statutory sex and relationship education covering healthy relationships, domestic abuse, consent and challenging sex role stereotypes as part of the national curriculum” because “better education about healthy relationships will help to prevent domestic abuse, and ensure that victims and perpetrators know where to go for help.”
She notes the Tory’s austerity agenda has led to more women being endangered, with local authorities passing on the cuts imposed on them to the services they fund, such as refuges for vulnerable women. For example, women’s services in the UK suffered a huge blow in 2015 when Eaves, a specialist service for women victims of violence, was forced to close. Frustratingly, the specialist services that survive are often at the mercy of grant funding based on contracts and competitive tendering, which means the services can end up being run by the lowest bidder and organisations which are not led by feminist women.
Is she hopeful about the recent feminist resurgence associated with women such as Laura Bates and Kat Banyard? “I really hope that women continue to find feminism”, she says. “I hope they don’t find liberal man-pleasing feminism. It does give me hope but not hope enough. I’ve found that as often as feminism reinvents itself there comes a backlash against that feminism.”
“I want to be hopeful but I’m not really”, she laughs ruefully, though later apologises for her negativity in an email.
Talking about her own feminist politics, Ingala Smith says her brand of feminism “tends towards” radical feminism. “I think inequality is structural, I think patriarchy exists”, she explains. “The things that identify radical feminism is that you talk about patriarchy and the male dominated society, you see that men’s violence against women is part of creating that patriarchy and maintaining it.” Another common tenant of radical feminism is the importance of women-only organising and women-only spaces. Ingala Smith doesn’t think men can be feminists, though believes men can make a difference and can be part of the solution. “I am saying that when we have feminist spaces they can butt out and make the rest of society a more feminist space.”
What concrete actions does she think men who support women should take? “Shut up and listen to women”, she laughs. “Fundraise for your local refuge.”
“I believe in decent men”, she says, “but I think men are a big problem as well. Masculinity is a big problem.” Again she is keen to highlight that she doesn’t think biology is destiny. ”There is a question, isn’t there? Why are men more violent than women? Men do most of the killing. Mostly they are killing other men more than women but you don’t see the reverse of that. Why is that?”, she asks. “It’s either nature or nurture or a combination of both. For the good of all of us as a species I’m hoping that it’s more nurture the nature.”
The ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’ report can be downloaded from https://www.womensaid.org.uk/what-we-do/campaigning-and-influencing/femicide-census/. See also http://www.niaendingviolence.org.uk/.