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As killings of women increase in Scotland, is femicide the real 'F' word?

Design: Vicky Axelson

As killings of women increase in Scotland, is femicide the real 'F' word?

The word ‘femicide’ is barely used in Scotland.

And yet we live in a country where, as the homicide figures have gone down, the femicide figure has gone up. A country where most of the women killed last year were killed by a partner. A country where – unlike in England and Wales – men who kill their wives or girlfriends can use their victims’ suspected infidelity to justify lethal violence as part of a plea of provocation.

Scotland is a country where male violence against women is endemic. Of the near 65,000 domestic abuse incidents recorded by Police Scotland in 2021-22, four in five involved a female victim and a male perpetrator. 

And it is a country where it is well established that such incidents represent only a fraction of the true scale of abuse, with so much of the harm unreported and unrevealed by women too scared to come forward, and by bystanders who elect not to get involved. A country with a major problem of violence against women and girls and where new efforts are being made to understand the drivers of such terrible levels of abuse – physical or not.

The definition of domestic abuse has rightly broadened to include physical, verbal, sexual, psychological, and financial elements between partners in the home, online or elsewhere. Advertising campaigns by the police and others aim to educate men out of the corrosive attitudes linked to such offences, urging them not to “be that guy”. 

While much has been written about the causes and contexts in which domestic abuse is perpetrated in Scotland, little has been done to examine why some cases end in the deaths of the women, and sometimes children, involved. That’s about to change with two separate projects set to investigate what, if anything, marks out the lethal cases, and what interventions, if any, can be put in place to save lives.

What is it about these cases? What is that that we can learn?

Both – one led by the Scottish Government and partners, the other by criminologists – take place against the backdrop of those 2021-22 homicide figures, which show that while the overall number of killings went down ten per cent to 53, the total number of women killed went up. And of those 16 women who were killed (ten more than the previous year and around one third of the overall figure), more than half were killed by a partner or former partner.

They include Diane Nichol, 57, beaten to death in her Hawick home by her fiance, who is now in prison for her murder. They also include 39-year-old hospital worker Emma Coupland and her daughter Nicole Anderson, 24, whose fatal stab wounds were inflicted by Coupland’s estranged husband. He died in a car crash as he tried to flee the scene in Kilmarnock. And they include so many other cases now waiting to come to court.

In November, shortly after the homicide figures were published, the Scottish Government announced the establishment of a multi-agency taskforce aimed at preventing killings “where domestic abuse is suspected”. Police Scotland, Cosla, Scottish Women’s Aid, health boards and victims’ representatives, will work together to create Scotland’s first Domestic Homicide Review system, following on from a model which has already existed in England for more than a decade.

Domestic Homicide Reviews came into force down south in April 2011. They seek to learn lessons about gaps in service provision and potential opportunities for interventions by authorities in cases where a person aged 16 or over has died as a result of violence, abuse or neglect by a partner, ex-partner, relative or another member of their household. The exact membership of Scotland’s panel has yet to be made public, as has the progress made since its announcement. 

Its aims are broadly similar to those of the 12-month Understanding Domestic Homicide in Scotland project to be led by Professor Lesley McMillan of Glasgow Caledonian University.

Involving experts from the University of Glasgow, Police Scotland and agencies dedicated to combating violence against women and girls, the initiative seeks to address a “significant” gap in knowledge about how domestic abuse leads to killing.

“Current data sets fail to unpack the complexity of factors that precede domestic homicide, yet this knowledge and understanding of the people, places and their interactions may offer us the best opportunities to prevent further deaths,” the researchers say. “Similarly, some deaths are ‘hidden’ such as suicides that are preceded by domestic abuse, but little is known about this phenomenon.”

The findings, McMillan hopes, “might be of interest” to the Scottish Government’s taskforce. “We are using a different jumping-off point,” she tells Holyrood. “We are not duplicating what they are doing.

“Gender-based violence, in all its forms, is a consequence of gender inequality,” she continues. “If we want to reduce it, that’s what we have to tackle. Domestic abuse is incredibly common and there’s always that risk of harm across the board, all the time. There’s quite a small number of domestic homicides in comparison to domestic abuse.

“What is it about these cases? What is that that we can learn? Given that domestic abuse manifests in different ways and different contexts, can we learn anything about the cases where it does end in a fatality?”

Diane Nichol, Emma Coupland and Nicole Anderson are just three of the names that appear in the Counting Dead Women register kept by Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of London-based charity, nia, which provides services to women and children who have experienced sexual and domestic violence.

The register is UK-wide and led to the development of the Femicide Census, which raises awareness of male violence against women and provides “a clearer picture” of the scale of the problem. “Men’s violence against women is a leading cause of premature death for women globally but research in the UK and Europe is limited and unconnected,” its website states. “By collating femicides, we can see that these killings are not isolated incidents, and many follow repeated patterns.”

Understanding the differences between male and female homicide is essential

Every year Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, reads out the list of victims where a male suspect has been charged or identified in the preceding 12 months in the House of Commons. In 2022, it took more than five minutes to get through the list, which featured Diane Nichol’s name around half way through. 

Rory O’Connor was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to causing the grandmother’s death in August 2021. The High Court in Edinburgh had heard how he denigrated the 57-year-old before she died. “You’re useless, you don’t clean, you don’t make my lunch,” witnesses heard him call the day before he killed her. She suffered chest and abdominal injuries which caused breathing problems and blood loss. An injury to her liver caused by O’Connor was of a kind normally seen in victims of road traffic accidents, the court heard. 

“I’ll never be able to understand how he was able to get into her head the way he did and change her so completely,” Nichol’s sister Gail Atkinson said after sentence was passed. “We did know something was going on with Diane and that man, but never in a million years would [we] have believed it could end this way.”

“Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy which has a devastating impact on families, friends and communities,” says Will Linden, deputy director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit.

“While the figures tell us that the majority of victims and those accused of homicide are men, with 83 per cent of victims and 92 per cent of those accused being male, the majority of those killed by their partner or ex-partner were women, with a high proportion of homicides in their own homes. 

“Understanding and acknowledging the differences between male and female homicide is essential to identify the root causes and prevent future violence.”

Dr Rachel McPherson of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research argues that “more must be done to label intimate partner femicide cases appropriately” as part of the criminal justice response. In her academic paper, Reflecting on Legal Responses to Intimate Partner Violence in Scotland, the University of Glasgow lecturer says “concerted effort will need to be made for the Scottish criminal justice system” to respond to such cases “appropriately”. “The operation of provocation claims based on infidelity has contributed to a toxic environment in which domestic abuse and its dangers have been rendered invisible, misunderstood and/or recharacterised,” she argues. 

Where that defence is used as the basis for a plea of provocation, there must have been an immediate loss of control and the response must be that of an ordinary person, according to the rules. For Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) chief executive Dr Marsha Scott, it has no place in a modern justice system. “Talk about a glaring misogynistic, patriarchal legal element,” she tells Holyrood.

“It’s horrific. It’s just an indication of the whole system and how differently it treats the deaths of women and children, how differently it treats the behaviours that lead to those deaths. Justice for children and women has always been filtered through their lesser value in our society. This is an opportunity,” she adds about Domestic Homicide Reviews, “for us to do something really great to shine a really bright light on the patriarchal assumptions that underpin our criminal justice response and shake them up.”

While the Scottish Government declined to name taskforce members, or to put anyone up for interview, Scott has confirmed that she is a “vocal” member of the group. “We have been deeply involved in campaigning for Scotland to develop a Scottish model of reviewing domestic abuse deaths,” she says. “It’s not homicide most of the time, it’s femicide. There are an awful lot of deaths and domestic abuse cases that don’t reliably fit under the way they are currently classified. We need a Scottish model that includes suicides and child murders.

“If we don’t look at the whole number, we’ll be failing miserably and we risk colluding with a system that makes those deaths invisible.”

SWA convened talks with government officials, judiciary and police to discuss domestic homicide reviews five years ago, Scott says. “We all thought Scotland needed a process that looked at cases where our systems failed to protect people, a process that used lessons from England and elsewhere to craft a good Scottish model, but the government has been very slow to implement it. 

“The tendency has been to look at how they operate in England. There are so many reasons that’s not necessarily transferable, or has terribly good outcomes. I spoke to someone who sits on a review board, who said ‘all we see is action plans after action plans’. We don’t want that to be the case in Scotland. 

“We welcomed action taken by the Scottish Government last year, although we continue to have concerns that the taskforce set up may be too big and too slow,” she goes on, “and I’m hoping that despite that we will move with pace, to use the government’s new favourite phrase, and have a model to test by end of current year. And I will hold all of us to that.”

So why hasn’t this been done before? “It’s a failure to prioritise, and I think that’s a sad statement about where women and children who are dying because of domestic abuse fall on the priority list,” Scott says.

“It’s really important to see what we should be finding out about how systems work and how do we embed action in our systems? Like everything else in life, homicide and femicide are gendered. Women are killed in different situations and settings than men. It’s apples and oranges. The problem we have had for a really long time is the ‘default model’. Systems treat deaths from domestic abuse in the same way as other murders, mostly of men by men.”

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