By Jean Calder
November is the month we remember the dead. In western Europe the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls take place on 1st and 2nd November. In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is on 11th November.
This strong tradition of commemorating suffering and death may be one reason why, some years ago, the United Nations designated 25th November as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
This year, the UN has called for “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence”, from 25th November to 10th December, Human Rights Day.
So this seems as good an opportunity as any to write about the work I do when I am not writing this column. I remember dead women.
I sit at my desk posting homicide reports to a website about victims, some old enough to be my mother, many young enough to be my daughter.
The national charity For Our Daughters was founded in Brighton on 8th March 2011. It works to end homicide and violence against women and girls, but its primary purpose is to commemorate those who have died. We do this primarily through our website.
We work to raise public and media awareness and change attitudes. We aim to persuade Government to make ending homicide and violent crime against females a real political priority. We hope to persuade politicians that because violence against women is so often rooted in attitudes of sexism and contempt, all such violence – particularly homicides – should be monitored nationally like racist crime.
We believe that if any other physically identifiable social group was consistently violently targeted, tortured or killed by another group – it would be a national scandal, front page news and top of politicians’ agenda. But even lethal violence towards women seems almost to be taken for granted – presented, not as entrenched human rights abuse, but as a series of individual family tragedies, a matter for private grief or televised prurience, but never political outrage.
Between 3 and 4 women and girls die each week as a result of male violence, of which 2 are killed by partners and ex-partners. This year alone, according to the website Counting Dead Women, at least 116 women have been killed through suspected male violence.
This is a higher annual death rate than existed during the years of Northern Ireland conflict and exceeds troop loss in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no government has yet made safety for women and girls a real political and financial priority.
The Government has said that it’s ambition is “nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls”. This is admirable, but unless it is backed by real political will, nothing will change.
In the abstract, newspaper editors, like politicians, say they are opposed to violence against women – and occasionally highlight aspects of it. What they generally do not do is to challenge the sexism and misogyny that underpins it.
This means that when confronted by an actual death, newspapers – and politicians – revert to old attitudes. I’ll give just one example.
Susan Bowles was found dead on 13th November 2013 in the stairwell of flats in Hastings. A man was arrested on suspicion of murder, then bailed. The circumstances of her death are still unexplained. However, local councillor John Hodges, did not hesitate to comment.
In the Argus, he made no statement of condolence nor horror at the loss of a woman’s life, but said: “It’s exactly the news that Hastings doesn’t want and has never wanted. By and large the record on crime is very good and the last two police commanders have driven crime levels downwards and that trend continues downwards. Contrary to what the Daily Mail and other newspapers say, we are not a crime-ridden town.” adding “All the information seems to indicate this is a domestic incident and not something the police can legislate for.”
Cllr Hodges’ words suggest greater concern for the reputation of Hastings, than the death of one of its residents. His reference to a possible “domestic” homicide as “not not something the police can legislate for” is chilling. In fact, such killings are just as illegal, and should be taken as seriously, as any other homicide.
He’s not unusual in implying that such murders can’t be predicted or prevented, but this is untrue. Domestic homicides often result from an escalating pattern of abuse. All research shows that early and effective intervention prevents injury and death.
A key task of our website is to re-present published information about homicides, but to do it in such a way that the dead woman is treated with dignity. We attempt to find information about her work, her interests, the things that made her a human being. We strive to make her life the focus rather than the dreadful circumstances of her death. It is appallingly difficult to do.
Most people reading this will know women who have died by violence.
We ask you to remember them.
Note: This was previously published on 29th November 2013 in the Brighton & Hove Independent newspaper