Growing concerns about the failure of police to properly investigate cases of women who have killed themselves after violence or abuse have led to a campaign for a new homicide law of “suicide aggravated by harassment or violence”.
The campaign is to be launched next month by Southall Black Sisters, who say the law would also cover those who jump from high buildings after being jeered by onlookers or who kill themselves after being encouraged over the internet.
An estimated 10 women kill themselves every week after repeated abuse, Home Office statistics show. Attempted or successful suicide is more than three times higher among Asian women in the UK , especially among those aged between 15 and 24 years old, according to research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in1992.
But prosecutions are rare: there is no law in Britain against encouraging suicide without physical help. Only coroner’s courts can compel investigations into suicides.
“At best, convoluted efforts are being made to hold perpetrators of violent or abusive conduct to account when a suicide results,” said Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, which has a history of forcing through new laws to protect women.
“At worst, such deaths are not properly investigated at all. In our experience, in the face of violence or abuse, many women feel that they have no option but to self-harm or kill themselves. This state of affairs is especially disturbing in the context of a complete absence of any … effective criminal prosecutions of perpetrators of abuse who are demonstrably culpable in causing a woman or vulnerable person to commit suicide.”
Patel launched the campaign after taking on the case of 23-year-old Nosheen Azam, who was found engulfed in flames in her garden in Sheffield in 2005.
Azam had come to the UK from Pakistan seven months earlier to live with her British husband, Amjid Hussein. Almost immediately, she began complaining to her family that she was being abused by some of her husband’s family, said Azam’s father Mohammed. On the day she was found in flames, she had told her parents that she was frightened for her life, her father said. Nobody knows whether someone tried to murder Azam, whether she was goaded into taking her own life, or whether she made her own decision: the young woman now lies in a hospital bed, brain-dead with over 60% burns. She is, said her father, “a living corpse”.
“There has been no concerted effort to find out what drove Nosheen to attempt to take her own life,” said Patel. “If she had died, there would at least have been an inquest. Because there is no law of ‘suicide aggravated by domestic violence’, however, there is no motivation for the police to investigate whether it is a case of provable encouragement to suicide, despite that being nearly the same thing as murder.”
A new homicide law could have wider applications in cases like that of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter after repeated abuse by youths near their home in Hinckley, Leicestershire.
It could be used in cases like that of Shaun Dykes, the 17-year-old boy who jumped off a shopping centre in Derby in 2008 after being goaded by onlookers. Film footage appeared on YouTube.
Patel criticised the legal options available when a woman kills herself after enduring domestic violence. It is up to campaigners to ask coroner’s courts to investigate why the suicide occurred. This, she said, is inadequate and “has enormous cost implications for campaigning groups like ours”.
“There has to be some means of ensuring that those responsible for causing someone to take their life, are held criminally liable. The current state of affairs in untenable and cannot therefore be justified,” she said. Patel wants the law to encompass mental damage. “If domestic violence or abuse results in psychological harm … there is no basis upon which to bring a criminal prosecution under the present law on manslaughter.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010