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The Guardian view on the rise in female homicide victims: going backwards | Editorial | Opinion

New figures showing a 10% rise in the number of female victims of murder, manslaughter and infanticide in England and Wales in the year to March 2019, to its highest level for 14 years, are extremely concerning. So is an increase in the number of homicides in which the victim was under 16, to its highest level since 2004. Caution must always be taken in forming conclusions based on a single year’s figures. The human tragedies behind such data are shaped by a multitude of factors. But it is impossible not to be disappointed that violence against women and children increased during a period when the government was led by a prime minister, Theresa May, who counted domestic abuse among her personal priorities.

Almost half of the 241 killings of women and girls were domestic, with 38% involving a partner or ex-partner, while 31% of the 68 victims aged under 16 (including boys, and 30 babies aged less than one) were killed by a parent or step-parent. This figure is set to rise, as a perpetrator has yet to be confirmed in 53% of child homicides – and killings of children by strangers are very rare.

It is too soon to assert conclusively that the trend in killings of women and children is upwards. Until 2017, the number of female victims of homicide had fallen in most years since the early 2000s (when a spike included the 130 female victims of Harold Shipman). But the rise in homicides of women and children, who are mainly killed by partners or close family members (in contrast to men, who are more often killed by friends or strangers), means that home life for women, girls and boys has become less safe.

After several years of sharp rises, last year’s 11% fall in the number of male victims is hugely welcome – as is a 24% fall in the number of those aged 16-24. These figures contributed to an overall 5% decline in the homicide rate. But while it is neither possible nor helpful to point to a single reason either for this development or for the rise in killings of women and children, it is essential to put both into context. By promising to increase police numbers by 20,000, ministers have in effect acknowledged a link between police cuts and rising crime. Mrs May’s domestic abuse bill, which would have strengthened protection for some victims, fell when December’s general election was called. Budgets for refuge and crisis services have been stretched beyond breaking point.

Meanwhile, an increasingly chaotic situation in the wider criminal justice system has led to well-documented failures, with the position with regard to rape prosecutions especially dire. Recent Guardian research showed that the number of cases referred for charging decisions fell by 32% in the year to September 2019. While it is wise to be cautious about asserting causes and effects, it is surely not far-fetched to suggest that violent men could be emboldened by such circumstances, and that women will continue to suffer until solutions, including new resources for prevention, are found.

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