Femicide epidemic

Photo: Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As protesters against Sarah Everard’s murder have their charges dropped, Sabia Kamali says the epidemic of femicide needs action now

Author and activist Diana Russell first defined the term ‘femicide’ in 1976 as ”the intentional killing of women or girls because they are female”. She publicised the term at the first International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Belgium. At the tribunal, she stated: “We must realise that a lot of homicide is femicide. We must recognise the sexual politics of murder. From the burning of witches in the past, to the more recent widespread custom of female infanticide in many societies, to the killing of women for ‘honour’, we realise that femicide has been going on a long time.”

Nearly 50 years after the tribunal, it appears nothing has changed. We have a grim statistic in the United Kingdom: every three days, there is a woman who is killed by a man. The figure was collated by the Femicide Census, a data source that collates information about women killed in the UK.

The murder of Sarah Everard once again brought attention to all the issues of femicide in our society. The murder of Sabina Nessa highlighted the additional aggravating features of class and race when it comes to the issue of violence against women.

Disparities were highlighted in the different treatment by the media of each murder. When Sarah Everard, 33, was kidnapped and murdered by a former police officer, there was an outpouring of mainstream media coverage. It rightly made front page news for many publications. Unfortunately, when Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old school teacher, was tragically killed by Koci Selamaj, her story took slightly longer to reach the public.

Yvonne Jewkes, professor of criminology at the University of Bath and author of Media and Crime, said she thought that the reason the mainstream media took longer to report Sabina’s story could have been “underlying issues around racism and misogyny”. Sabina’s sister, Jebina Yasmin Islam, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, also expressed a similar view, suggesting, “If we were a normal white family, we would have been treated equally, I guess”.

Both murders are on the extreme end of a continuum of anti-female terror which includes mental, verbal and physical abuse against women. We at Sisters Forum come across terror aimed at women because they are women on a daily basis. Violence against women in East London, aggravated by the socio-economic inequalities of the area, is among the highest rates in the country.

Barely a year after we held a vigil for Sabina Nessa, Sisters Forum organised another candlelit vigil in Newham in a renewed protest against violence against women. This time it was for Zara Aleena, a 35-year-old law graduate who was brutally murdered minutes away from her home in Ilford on 26th June 2022. Jordon McSweeney was later charged with her murder as well as attempted rape and robbery. This latest vigil was organised to create an awareness that violence against women and girls isn’t a women’s safety issue but a male violence issue. We keep focusing on women’s behaviour because the focus has always been on what women should do to keep themselves safe. But we don’t focus on the perpetrators, who happen to be men! 

Sisters Forum has been campaigning to create a safe space for women since Sarah Everard’s murder, and this has been reinforced by those of Sabina Nessa and now Zara Aleena. It feels like nothing has changed. Women are still unsafe, and it feels as though our lives have no value. We need to make misogyny a hate crime. Women should also expect the same outcry from the media and the public regardless of their ethnicity or class. We should expect equal mobilisation from all sections of society.

Violence against women, which has increased in the last couple of years, is bound up with misogyny and power. Gender-based violence has been ingrained in our social norms and attitudes towards women, producing systemic structural domination. This is why when we see women being murdered, we see society making excuses for male perpetrators whilst blaming the victims. This has to be tackled. Regardless of how many times we call for men to stop being violent towards women, the very serious epidemic of anti-female violence continues to spread in our society.

Femicide needs to be taken seriously as an issue by public bodies and institutions in the United Kingdom. In Latin America, for example, many new laws have been created to label the murders of women as femicide. These changes have been made due to global human rights norms, like the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention and the Eradication of Violence against Women, which states that gender violence is the state’s responsibility.

We need to move away from mere gestures of public sympathy and make the eradication of femicide and anti-women terror a public sector duty, similar to the public sector equalities duty under the Equalities Act. This means forcing public institutions to adopt the eradication of anti-women terror in their strategic plans and annual implementation strategies. The vigils we’ve seen in the past year were all sparked by the deaths of women killed in public spaces. We must bring these murders to an end!

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