Karen Ingala Smith is the CEO of Nia, a London-based nonprofit dedicated to “delivering cutting edge services to end violence against women and children.” She recently got a lot of media attention for initiating the creation of the Femicide Census, a system designed to track the numbers of women who are killed by men. The Femicide Census was created in collaboration with Women’s Aid, legal firm Freshfields, Bruckhaus and Deringer LLP, and Deloitte LLP. Its ultimate goal is to uncover patterns to help governments strategically work to reduce men’s violence toward women.
We sat down with Karen Ingala Smith to talk about feminism, her job, and why it’s so important to look at the big picture when it comes to men’s violence against women.
MTV: When did you first know you were a feminist?
KAREN INGALA SMITH: I remember learning about feminism when I was about sixteen or seventeen and my first reaction was that it was a stupid idea. I was quite class-conscious, and when I first heard about feminism, it seemed strange to think that I could ever have more in common with what I called the “posh girls” at school than I could with the boys I hung out with at home. It seemed like a ridiculous notion. But then … one of the subjects I took was sociology, and feminist theory was part of that. I learned very quickly that feminism did include intersections of class and race, and once I got my head around that, there was no stopping me… It’s never left me.
MTV: How were you able to find a job advocating for a cause that you were passionate about, and what advice do you have for young people who want to do the same?
SMITH: Through [high school] and university, I did volunteer work. I volunteered one evening a week at a youth group for girls. At one point I volunteered at a drop-in institution for adults with mental health problems. After I graduated, I got a job in a homeless women’s shelter ... it was quite a low-level entry job ... but I basically took it from there. [Volunteering] can be a way to get experience that will allow you to apply for paid work. So I’d say, only do it if you really care about it and you’re prepared to put in the work to develop the skills that you need.
MTV: What led you to start your blog, Counting Dead Women?
SMITH: Through feminism I had an interest in [working to end] male violence against women. When I left university, I wanted to work with women who were victims of male violence. I’ve been doing that for nearly 25 years, so it’s been a career-long interest. But at the beginning of 2012, I happened to be looking online and noticed that a lot of women in the U.K. seemed to have been killed by men right at the beginning of the year. To satisfy my own curiosity, I started to make a list of their names so that I could figure out how many it had been, and then once I started counting, I just didn’t really feel like I could stop. It felt like if I stopped ... it would be like I was saying the next woman killed wasn’t important.
For more information and vital facts about gender-based violence, including dating violence, head over to Look Different.
MTV: Why do you think so few countries currently track femicide?
SMITH: Because I think the laws were made by rich men, for rich men. I think the law is patriarchal, and it’s taken decades of feminist demand that femicide be taken seriously for [governments] to start listening. Laws don’t change unless men decide that there’s a need for it.
MTV: What can we do to encourage the U.S. to start utilizing the Femicide Census?
SMITH: I think we have to start making noise about it and changing the discourse, so that we no longer talk about these things as isolated incidents, but as something that’s being collectively done by men to women. I do hope that we will be able to shame those with power into doing things differently. Because they’re obviously so wrong to not be doing so.
MTV: Many countries focus instead on counting people who are killed by current or former partners. Why is that problematic?
SMITH: I think it’s important that we know how many women and men have been killed by partners or former partners … but we know that regardless of relationship status, men are most likely to be killed by men, and women are also most likely to be killed by men. In the U.K., “Current or former partner” also includes a “lover’s spouse” or an “emotional rival.” Combining data for 2011/12 and 2013/14, of 57 men killed in partner/ex-partner homicides in the U.K., 21 of them -- over a third -- were actually killed by a man. And [when we look more closely at the data], it turns out that of 249 women killed in partner/ex-partner homicides over the same three years, 247 of them were killed by a man, and only one of them is known to have been actually killed by a woman.
"Of the 249 women killed (in the U.K.) in partner/ex-partner homicides over the same three years, 247 of them were killed by a man."
When you look at domestic homicide reviews in the U.K., we see another important difference -- men killed by women were usually killed after subjecting that woman to years and years of abuse, whereas women who’ve been killed by men have usually been victims of that man’s abuse for years and years. Also, if you look at men who kill women who are strangers, many of them have previous convictions for violence -- domestic abuse and physical violence, including sexual violence -- so when men kill women, they usually, regardless of the relationship, have a history of violence against women, and we just don’t see that when women kill men.
"I think men’s violence against women is absolutely rooted in inequality between women and men."
MTV: Is the problem of femicide related to rape culture as a whole?
SMITH: I think the bottom line of the connection is patriarchy: patriarchal society. I think men’s violence against women is absolutely rooted in inequality between women and men. When we look at women who’ve been killed by men, there’s frequently sexual violence involved… Rather than separate out sexual violence and non-sexual violence, I think we need to look at how our society makes women into objects that are there for men’s pleasure and utilization. I don’t think it’s possible to say that men’s violence against women can ever be taken out of the context of a sexist, misogynistic society.
MTV: That reminds me of a story called "The Husband Did It" that recently ran on The Awl. The author Alice Bolin wrote, “In Gone Girl, [Gillian] Flynn cracks open the culture and lets Nick say one of our unsayable beliefs: that it is scarier for a man to be accused than to be killed.” She also pointed out that true crime shows, films, and books tend to focus on the “fun” detective work of solving crimes without really looking at the history of abuse or the systemic violence that caused them. What do you think about ‘true crime’ media -- books, television shows, films -- that dramatize violent crimes, or the detective work that follows?
SMITH: I think it’s absolutely true that male violence against women has become an entertainment category, and I think it’s a sad reflection on society that that’s happened. Time and time again we hear the narrative of false accusations against men, but … the number of convictions for so-called false allegations [in the U.K.] is just absolutely minute, especially compared with the number of times women’s reports of violence don’t end up in court or end up in a guilty verdict.
MTV: Al Jezeera recently published a story, "Six Women Murdered Each Day as Femicide in Mexico Nears a Pandemic". Do you think utilizing something like the Femicide Census could be helpful in Mexico?
SMITH: I’d like to think it would be helpful everywhere, so that we could look at what the connections are across the world, but also look at what the differences are. Men’s violence against women cuts across all racial and cultural backgrounds, and in nearly all cultures, it’s absolutely integral and systematic. But there are different forces at play in every country, so there are some differences in how that violence is perpetrated and the extent of it. As someone who’s looking from outside the picture [with Mexico], I don’t know exactly how it’s being looked at as an issue internally, but certainly if it is being swept under the carpet, the Femicide Census would be a helpful way to address that.
MTV: Any other advice for young people in the US interested in working on this issue?
SMITH: Read about it, learn about it, look at the news, look at how saturated we are with images and stories about men’s violence. Notice the ways that women and men are represented differently in the media. Open your eyes and start to see what’s actually happening, and question everything. Ask the questions yourself and then start to look for the answers.