As we kick off #16DaysOfActivism against gender-based violence, the Victims' Commissioner reflects on the recent Femicide Census 10-year report and reiterates her call for the government to introduce a freestanding offence of strangulation in the Domestic Abuse Bill.
Earlier this week, we marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Wednesday 25 November.
This important date in the calendar sees the start of 16 days of activism. These two weeks provide individuals and groups the important opportunity to mobilise and call attention to the urgent need for action to tackle violence against women and girls at home and abroad.
As always, I will be following the campaigning of the next two weeks with great interest and some great pride, too. My colleagues and friends across the sector produce some fantastic work which I’m pleased will now be appropriately showcased and receive the attention it deserves. Yet with that pride also comes continued frustration and anger.
Coinciding with IDEVAW was the publication of the Femicide Census. You will likely hear much about this report over the coming days. This is for good reason. The Census is a ground-breaking and sobering report, which analyses the killings of women and girls at the hands of men over a 10-year period in the UK.
In short, the report’s most shocking finding is that in the years 2009 to 2018 one woman was murdered every three days. This represents a shameful final tally of over 1,425 victims. That’s 1,425 mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, friends and colleagues.
One of the most startling and alarming revelations of the Femicide Census’ analysis was the prevalence of strangulation in the cause of death. Over a quarter (27%) of all female homicides were by strangulation. This compares to 3% among male homicides. It’s clear to me that strangulation is a gendered crime.
Which is why it is so frustrating that my calls for the government to introduce a specific offence of non-fatal strangulation as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill were dismissed.
These weren’t just my calls, either. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Centre for Women’s Justice and many others besides also lobbied the government for this important amendment.
Non-fatal strangulation or asphyxiation is an utterly terrifying experience and can cause significant long-term mental and physical trauma to victims and survivors.
It is often part of a pattern of abuse that is not sufficiently recognised or investigated. Strangulation is repeatedly used as a tool to exert power and control, and to instil fear, rather than being a failed homicide attempt.
One in five sexual assault victims is strangled by their attacker. Non-fatal strangulation is a known high-risk indicator in domestic abuse cases leading to homicide. Research shows that it is a clear indicator of extreme levels of coercive control and violence, with those subject to strangulation having an eight-fold increase in the risk of death.
But the law is not fit for purpose. There is currently no specific offence of non-fatal strangulation. This type of assault is ‘covered’ by more general assault offences and we see significant under-charging by police and prosecutors, who often fail to understand and appreciate the severity of this crime.
A specific offence with appropriate sanctions would make the harm and dangers of non-fatal strangulation – and the appropriate action by law enforcement – crystal clear.
There is precedent here; the Coalition Government rightly sought to introduce a specific offence for behaviour known as ‘revenge porn’ in order to underline the seriousness of the offence and address chronic under-charging.
We can also learn from international best practice: New Zealand, the US and Australia have all introduced specific offences for non-fatal strangulation and have found that doing so has been a more effective criminal sanction and helped to increase awareness of the issue.
The law is failing victims and survivors and the penalties associated with strangulation do not reflect the significant harm inflicted.
I once again call on the government to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill to introduce a freestanding offence of strangulation or asphyxiation. This would require the police and criminal justice agencies to treat cases with the gravity that they deserve and sends a strong signal to the wider public about the severity of this terrifying crime.
If the Domestic Abuse Bill is to make a real difference and save lives, non-fatal strangulation must be made a distinct and serious crime. If we are to see real, noticeable change in the next Femicide Census, we need to act now.