Karen Ingala Smith counts dead women. It may seem a strange – perverse even – way to spend her time, but her work matters, now more than ever.
Each year since 2015, Ingala Smith and her colleague Clarrie O’Callaghan have published details about the number of women killed by men.
And in a tradition started only in 2016, just after she was elected, Labour MP Jess Phillips reads out their names in the House of Commons on International Women’s Day, 8 March.
The Femicide Census makes difficult reading. The 2018 report, published earlier this week, shows that 149 women across the UK were killed by men.
The majority, 61 per cent, were killed by their current or former partner. Twelve women were killed by their son, or stepson. And in more than half the cases, “overkilling” was evident.
“Overkilling” is a chilling term. It suggests a level of violence and hatred that is beyond the imagination of most us. The majority of women killed in 2018 did not die from a single blow, or a phial of poison. Their killers relished in their violence.
Men like former rugby player Rowan Baxter, who is accused of murdering his three children and wife in a peaceful Brisbane suburb on Wednesday morning, before killing himself.
In a scene that is beyond most of our imaginations, Baxter poured petrol over his three children, Laianah, six, Aaliyah, four, and Trey, three, and their mother Hannah Clarke, 31, then set them alight to watch them burn.
Barely hours after the horror, Australian police were indulging in the age-old trope that angers so many women across the world.
The initial story to emerge was that Baxter was a loving father who was devastated by his marriage break-up, and would do anything for his children. Including slaughtering them, it seems.
‘A history of violence’
Police suggested the killings may have been carried out by “a husband being driven too far by issues he’s suffered”, which is the ancient code for “she brought it on herself”.
But by the end of this week, the police had to admit that there was a history of family violence.
Hannah had sought help to cope with her violent ex-husband and she had been granted a temporary protection order.
“She loved them so fiercely and she was doing everything she could to protect them,” one of her friends told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
But no woman, no matter how fierce her love, can protect her children or herself from the violent rages and hatred that feed domestic abuse, which is why the Femicide Census is so important.
It gives life to the women murdered by men. It names them, and by that very act, the census shames our society, hopefully into more action.
A man rarely murders his partner on a whim. It is a culmination of years of abuse against her, which one day ends in her death.
That is why Scotland’s new Domestic Abuse Act, which became law only last year, is so important. It recognises domestic abuse as a crime for the first time, and it covers a range of behaviours such as psychological and emotional abuse.
Every woman who is punched and kicked by her partner will also be a victim of his controlling behaviour. He may tell her what to wear, who her friends should be, how to spend her money. And when the mood fits, his violent words will be accompanied by actual violence.
66-year-old Lesley Potter
This is why counting dead women matters, why naming them is so important, because as a society we cannot progress unless we know the extent of any problem; until we recognise that there are real people behind the stark statistics.
Women like 66-year-old Lesley Potter who, on Saturday, 7 April 2019, was strangled by her husband Derek Potter, 63. He attempted to make her death look like suicide but later confessed to killing her.
Exactly a week later, Angela Craddock, 40, was beaten to death by her partner William Smart, 54, who had just been released from prison for a previous assault on her. She was so badly injured she had to be identified by her fingerprints.
And the next day, teenager Natasha Hill died at the hands of her boyfriend Scott Clifford, 33. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The lives – and deaths – of these three women, and the other 146 who were killed in 2018, matter. And so does the data that Ingala Smith and her team gathers, because it will help shape policies and shift attitudes.
Which is why I cried earlier this week when I heard one of the most thoughtful, intelligent female politicians of her generation dismiss the rights of women and girls in a craven attempt to pander to a tiny minority.
Rapists in a women’s prison?
At a campaign rally, Lisa Nandy – a Labour leadership hopeful – was asked if violent male sexual offenders who identify as women should be allowed to serve their sentence in a women’s prison.
Her reply shocked me. “I believe fundamentally in people’s right to self-ID.” she said matter of factly. So far, so uncontroversial.
But she went on. “I think that crimes that are recorded should be recorded as that person wishes, having gone through that process, received support and self-identified.
“I think trans women are women, I think trans men are men, so I think they should be accommodated in a prison of their choosing.”
In those two sentences, Lisa Nandy put the rights of violent men – who, whether because of gender dysphoria, sexual fetish or simply because they like frocks, identify as women – before the rights of their female victims.
She believes, and I struggle even to write this sentence, that if a man who rapes or kills a woman then identifies as female, their crime should be recorded as being perpetrated by a woman. A woman raping – or murdering – a woman.
That way madness lies. Policy makers need evidence to change society. If the data about sexual violence and domestic abuse is distorted by male perpetrators who ‘identify’ as women, then bad policies will ensue.
Nandy may have won a couple of extra votes from the trans lobby for selling her sisters out, but she lost mine, and many, many more. Meanwhile, women like Karen Ingala Smith and Clarrie O’Callaghan will continue to count dead women, and for that we should all be grateful. However we identify.