Who was Emma Humphreys?

Emma Humphreys was a survivor, writer, and campaigner. Her case was a turning point in feminist attempts to change the law on murder and provocation.

Emma was repeatedly victimised and abused as a child - by the age of 16 was homeless and being exploited in prostitution. A client, who was 32, told her that he loved her and invited her to stay with him in his home. When she moved in, he quickly became her pimp and subjected her to extreme physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and would trap her in the house – nailing down the windows to prevent her from escaping.

One night, fearing another rape, Emma stabbed him once with a knife that she had been using to cut her wrists. She immediately ran to get him help, but he later died.

Too distressed to explain to the police what had happened, and with a legal team who were incurious and insensitive and did not ask her about what had led to the stabbing, Emma was convicted of murder aged 17 and given an indefinite sentence. She had not given evidence at the trial, and had been persuaded by her lawyers to sign away her right to appeal.

 In prison, Emma had space away from male violence and time to reflect on her experiences. She took a creative writing workshop and began to write poetry and prose about her life.

Seven years into her sentence, she made contact with the campaign group Justice for Women, after seeing coverage of their campaigns around the convictions of Sara Thornton and Kiranjit Ahluwalia. Justice for Women agreed to take up Emma’s case and after two years of campaigning, her conviction was overturned.

Emma’s case was instrumental in establishing that provocation can occur cumulatively over time, rather than being a reaction to a single event.

The quashing of Emma’s conviction was not only a vindication for her, but also a turning point in the feminist campaign against the way that the law on provocation was applied; giving significant leeway to men who killed their female partners whilst coming down harshly on women who killed men who had abused them. Emma’s case was instrumental in establishing that provocation can occur cumulatively over time, rather than being a reaction to a single event. This approach is necessary if we are to take account of the experience of abused women who eventually feel pushed into fighting back.

After her release, Emma spent three years campaigning on other Justice for Women cases. However, she still had to contend with a great deal of trauma from the abuse that she had experienced and from the criminal justice system. Whilst in prison she had become addicted to prescription tranquilisers, and in July 1998 she died in her sleep of an accidental overdose. She was found by Julie Bindel and Harriet Wistrich, members of Justice for Women who had become Emma’s friends and continued to look after her following her release.

To mark Emma’s life, a group of her friends decided to give prizes in her honour to women campaigners carrying on her legacy. Every year since then we have given the annual Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize.

The first prize in 1998 was given to Fiona Broadfoot, a campaigner who draws upon her own experience of being prostituted as a child to campaign for the abolition of the sex industry. Other winners of the prize have included Naz Shah, who campaigned for the release of her mother, Zoora Shah, before later going on to become the Labour MP for Bradford West.

When shortlisting and choosing winners of the prize, the Emma Humphreys trustees and judges reflect on the intersecting issues that were so damaging in Emma’s life, and those that continue to cause harm to so many women today. The prize has helped to bring prostitution and trafficking in from the margins of campaigns against male violence, and has also helped to raise awareness of issues such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and the abuse of disabled women.

The annual prizes are a chance for us to come together and celebrate the progress that we are making as a movement, as well as the taxing work of campaigning that often goes unrewarded.

The annual prizes are a chance for us to come together and celebrate the progress that we are making as a movement, as well as the taxing work of campaigning that often goes unrewarded.

This year for the first time, the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize is being given in collaboration with the Centre for Women’s Justice. We are giving one prize as usual, and one prize specifically for a woman or group who have used the law to hold the state to account on violence against women. As ever, we have an amazing shortlist of nominees.

Tickets for the 2019 EHMP awards on 8th November are now on sale – we hope to see many of you there.

Written by Rosa Bennathan - Trustee of the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize and a member of Justice for Women. She also works as a Paralegal at the Centre for Women's Justice.