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From the file

Hidden Homicides | How many women are killed – but not counted?

Jess Phillips MP: We count what we care about

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Why we’re calling for a national count of the domestic abuse victims who die in sudden or unexplained circumstances


“They say she killed herself. But no one seems to be asking why, why now?” These were the words told to me by a desperate mother recently after her daughter had taken her own life following decades of domestic abuse – abuse that was well known to social services and police.

The young woman, in her 30s, had recently called the police again for help because the threats and violence had become so severe. Her mother knew the pain her daughter was in. But it became intolerable for her daughter. 

Though this case is appalling, it’s not unique. I’ve held the hands of many parents whose children have been victims of domestic abuse, and who die suddenly, and sometimes, inexplicably. I’ve comforted many people certain that their daughter would not be dead, or would not have overdosed, had she not been a victim of oppressive domestic abuse.

But rarely do these cases get further investigation or questioning by police, or by coroners, despite so many of these women having a clear history of domestic and sexual violence. 

We seem to just accept these deaths. Just one of those things. 

This lack of professional curiosity by police in these cases – many of which could be hidden homicides – is matched by the same lack of care shown by the government, who do not count the number of victims of domestic abuse who die suddenly, or in unexplained circumstances. But this means: we have no idea of the true scale of the problem.

A national census of these deaths is not kept by the Home Office. Instead, the work is done by a group of volunteers and academics. Surely, as a state, we should be looking at trends in domestic abuse deaths. If we have any hope – or any real intention – of tackling the number of lives taken by domestic abuse, knowing what is actually happening is a basic first step.

There is an old maxim: we count what we care about. If, as a country, we don’t count something, it usually means we’re ignoring it. But when we’re talking about lives taken, about lives cut short, surely counting and analysing and mapping and caring should be the very least we do. 

That’s why we’re calling for a national count of the women who die suddenly, or in unexplained circumstances, and are known to be victims of domestic abuse. This is the first vital step to scoping the scale of this problem – and the only way to solve it. 

I am haunted by memories of the parents I have met whose daughters died of overdoses on their abusive boyfriends’ bedroom floors, or who lose their lives in accidents their families don’t believe in, or who kill themselves, no longer able to contemplate any sort of future after years of abuse. 

There is no silver bullet to save these victims. But I am absolutely certain of one thing: knowing more about how many women are dying, and why, would be a good place to start.

Next in this file

What you can do

What you can do

The deaths of domestic abuse victims that go uninvestigated and unrecognised is a national scandal, hidden from view. Join our call for action and help us bring it into the light

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