Poppy Devey Waterhouse was 24 when she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Joe Atkinson last year. The couple had dated for three years after meeting at university, although they split up in 2018. Atkinson found it difficult to accept that the relationship was over and, on one occasion, punched Poppy’s new boyfriend after seeing them together. Atkinson began to stalk Poppy by finding out where she was socialising and turning up unannounced.
On the night he took Poppy’s life, Atkinson had been drinking at a Christmas party. Fuelled by jealousy, rage and alcohol, he returned to the flat the couple still shared and stabbed Poppy more than 20 times. Atkinson told police that he had acted in self-defence after Poppy tried to attack him with a knife, a claim he later admitted was false. As such, on 17 January this year, he pleaded not guilty to femicide and the case was sent to court.
The term “femicide” was only coined in 1974, by Diana Russell. There was, she insisted, no word to document the killing of females by males because they are female, even though this sort of violence was historically and culturally significant and far from uncommon. It is now the leading cause of premature death for women globally.
There was huge resistance from male academics at the time, who claimed the word was a bastardisation of the English language. Surely “homicide” did the job perfectly well? But this rather unspecific term didn’t distinguish the motivation and circumstances of this particular sort of deadly male violence from other homicides. And so femicide stayed.
According to Poppy’s mother, Julie, perpetrators of femicide are not deemed to be as dangerous as other murderers. “Some of the sentences handed out to these men are shocking,” she says. She should know. She has been campaigning to raise awareness about the effects of femicide on the loved ones left behind.
The court case was a nightmare for Julie and her family, not least because Atkinson was planning to plead not guilty to her murder. “The idea of him saying those words, ‘not guilty’ in court had me shaking and hyperventilating,” says Julie. Atkinson changed his plea to guilty at the last minute.
Back in January 2012, Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of NIA, noticed several reports, day after day, of women killed by men. She began to count them and every year would published the names on her website. These would be read out by Jess Phillips MP in Parliament, and therefore recorded on Hansard.
In 2015, along with Women’s Aid, Ingala Smith published the first ever Femicide Report. It records and remembers the premature deaths of women and girls at the hands of men. It details the numbers of murders, the methods used and the contexts in which the women are killed — as well as their relationships with the men who kill.
This week, it published its ten year report — UK Femicides 2009-2018: “If I’m not in Friday, I might be dead” — and, in its terribly powerful dedication, it lists every single one of those 1,425 women’s names.
Little has changed over that decade. Ten years ago, a woman died at the hands of a man every three days. It’s pretty much the same today. The murders have remained constant. However, the compilers of the Femicide Census are not prepared to accept that we should merely “be grateful that the numbers have not increased”. Instead, they describe the situation as one of the greatest public policy failures of the decade.
Many of these tragedies could have been prevented. Almost half of the men who killed women during this 10-year period were known to have a history of violence against women, either the woman they killed or another woman or women. A number of the cases documented are subject to internal or external review into possible police failures or negligence.
In 2016, Dawn Rhodes was killed by her estranged husband Robert in the former family home. Dawn’s throat had been cut so deeply that she was partially decapitated. Rhodes had discovered that Dawn was having an affair with a colleague, and he had soon after met another woman on a dating website which Dawn had discovered, two days before she died.
This detail was relied upon in court which served to help convince the jury that Dawn was a spurned wife.
Rhodes claimed he acted in self-defence when he cut Dawn’s throat. The court heard that Dawn had confronted her former husband about his new relationship. During the row, Rhodes said, his wife grabbed a kitchen knife and made a “growling noise” as she “came at him at speed”. According to Rhodes, he “managed to disarm” Dawn and take the knife, which he then swung out once and slashed her across the neck, leaving a 13cm gaping wound.
Experts told the jury that it was more “plausible” that Dawn’s injury had been inflicted from behind as opposed to a frontal attack but, despite this, the jury found Rhodes not guilty of murder after 36 hours of deliberation.
Dawn’s name is there, at the beginning of the Report.
Dawn’s sister Kirsty Spencer now campaigns to end fatal male violence on behalf of her sister: “Through meeting feminists, I was able to find a voice,” she told me. “Dawn’s death gave me a justification to shout from the rooftops about what men do to women – the disgusting acts of male violence that are normalised and lead to the murder of women.”
“Domestic abuse is perceived as a ‘kerfuffle’,” she continues, referring to the case of Claire Perry. Perry was strangled to death by a police officer with whom she had been having an affair and who was later cleared of her murder. Which means that domestic violence isn’t perceived as being potentially deadly. “It is a disgrace that this is not seen as the crucial issue that it is.”
The majority of women in the report were aged between 26 and 55, accounting for 59% of all victims across the 10-year period. But sometimes the victims are horribly young: 3% were under 18 when they died.
Samantha Shrewsbury’s 17-year-old daughter Jayden Parkinson was murdered by her violent and controlling ex-boyfriend Ben Blakeley in December 2013. Jayden met Blakeley when she was 15 and he was 20. Immediately, Samantha was concerned about the rumours surrounding Blakeley. He enjoyed decapitating cats, for instance, and he had stabbed a boy in the neck with a Biro.
“I wanted to believe that these were just stories,” says Samantha. “But I did warn him that if he ever touched my daughter I would stand up to him. He spat in my face. From then on he kept her away from me.”
Jayden’s mother was right to be worried. Her daughter suffered violence and intimidation at Blakeley’s hands, only reporting him to the police after he threatened to post naked pictures of her online following their break-up. Then on 3 December 2013, Jayden called Blakeley from the hostel where she was living to tell him she was seven weeks pregnant. He became verbally abusive and claimed he was not the father. Blakeley demanded that she meet him face-to-face, and she travelled to Didcot to do so. When she failed to return that evening, hostel staff reported her disappearance to police.
Blakeley, who was known to be violent towards women, had previously been reported to police for attacking other girlfriends. He had thrown one ex-partner down the stairs when she was pregnant, and another ended up in hospital after he attempted to strangle her.
Jayden’s body was found 15 days after she disappeared in the grave of Blakeley’s uncle in Didcot. At trial, Blakeley claimed Jayden’s death was an accident, and that she had fallen and hit her head while he was strangling her.
“There were warning bells from when he was 12 years old,” says Samantha. “A social worker heard him say that if ever he murdered someone he would put them in somebody else’s grave so that they would mix up the DNA. That’s what he did to my Jayden 10 years later.”
Samantha is one of many grieving relatives I have spoken to who tell me they have found the Femicide Census both a comfort and a call to arms.
“I just happened to see the list in the paper of all the women killed that year and Jayden was number 131,” says Samantha. “The fact that [Karen Ingala Smith] made Jayden not a number was what mattered. For me, that meant everything, that the census gave Jayden that voice.”
Samantha tells me what Jayden was like as a little girl, about her curiosity, her mischievous nature, and how close they both were. When Jayden first became involved with Blakeley, Samantha tried desperately hard to get police and social services involved, but to no avail. The lack of professional help was appalling, she says. Police thought she was a neurotic mum and rather than being vulnerable, Jayden was seen as “an obnoxious little bitch. I never got help, the authorities never saw this as a case of domestic violence. But their mistakes mean that our daughters, sisters, our mothers, women everywhere are dying today because nobody stopped these men.”
A subsequent report into the police failures found that errors had a detrimental impact on the investigation into Jayden’s disappearance.
Today, Samantha is campaigning for a register, similar to the one for sex offenders, for men with a history of domestic violence. “It was obvious he was dangerous. If my Jayden had known what he had done to previous girlfriends, she would have given him a wide berth.”
Samantha does draw some comfort, though, from the fact that at least her daughter will leave a legacy that will help other women in abusive relationships as Jayden’s case was cited in the feminist campaign to introduce a law of coercive control.
So why, I ask Karen Ingala Smith, has the number of women killed by men in her report remained so constant despite the decades of feminist campaigning? “The scale of men’s violence against women in the country is huge,” she tells me. “We all know and yet people act as though it is somehow natural and inevitable.” Because this violence is hidden in plain sight, men are not stopped in the early stages and women will end up dead at their hands.
For Poppy Devey Waterhouse, Dawn Rhodes and Jayden Parkinson it is too late. But there are countless women trapped in abusive relationships with potentially murderous men, with Covid making 2020 far more threatening for them. Who is thinking of these women? Who is calling these men to account? Why is it only the feminists and the grieving relatives of the deceased who are left to honour the dead women and girls, and to demand justice from a broken criminal justice system?
If things were different — if every time a woman reported domestic violence, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service took it seriously, these deaths would dwindle. If the police took domestic violence seriously, particularly when multiple and escalating incidents were being reported, and took proper risk assessments, the perpetrator would be called to task before his violence became fatal. If the perpetrator knew that his actions would have serious consequences, that they could be viewed as a possible prelude to murder, he might think again before raising his fist.
So, yes, we should all be shocked, and we should all be angry. Male violence costs lives. Look at all those names at the beginning of the Femicide report. All those lives. Isn’t it time something more was done?