Here’s what you need to know about the term, how different parts of the world compare and what can be done to reduce femicides.
What is femicide?
Femicide, also known as feminicide, is the most extreme form of gender-based violence (GBV) and is defined as the “intentional murder of women because they are women.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO),”most cases of femicide are committed by partners or ex-partners, and involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence or situations where women have less power or fewer resources than their partner.”
Femicides fall into two categories: intimate and non-intimate femicide. The former refers to the killing of women by current or ex-partners, while the latter encapsulates the killing of women by people with whom they had no intimate relationship. This includes women killed during armed conflict as a weapons of war; so-called “honor” killings, where a woman is killed for allegedly bringing shame to her family; the murder of women because of their race or sexuality; femicides perpetrated by other women, acting as “agent(s) of patriarchy;” and the killing of transgender women.
How big is the problem?
There is no global, standardized or consistently recorded data on femicide.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) most recent global report on homicide was published in July 2019, presenting data from 2017. That year, 87,000 women around the world were intentionally killed — more than half of them (50,000) by intimate partners or family members. The total number is up from an estimated 48,000 in 2012.
But the problem is probably bigger. The “data gaps mask the true scale of violence” wrote the European Institute of Gender Equality, whose EU-wide survey results on GBV are expected in 2023.
How do regions of the world compare?
In the United Kingdom, between 2009 and 2018 “a woman is killed by a man every three days”, according to the Femicide Census’ 10-year report, published in November 2020.
In 2017 the largest recorded number of women were killed in Asia, followed by Africa, the Americas, Europe and Oceania.
A 2016 study, ”A Gendered Anaylysis of Violent Deaths”, reported that although their overall homicide numbers were low, Slovenia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria were the top four “high-income countries in which the female homicide rate is greater than or equal to the male homicide rate.” Germany and Hong Kong are tied in fifth place — though Hong Kong is not a country but a territory.
Although the UNODC reports that overall femicides form a small percentage of all murders, the global trend is still disturbing. German broadcaster DW reported in November 2020 that ”every day in Germany a man tries to kill his partner or ex-partner. Every third day an attempt is successful.”
There has been outcry across the globe at the numbers of women killed, from the US to Albania and Mexico, South Africa to Australia.
Is femicide different from homicide in criminal law?
No, in most countries it is not.
Only a handful of countries legally recognize femicide as distinctly different from homicide; most of them are in Latin America where 16 countries have included femicide as a specific crime.
No EU member states have defined femicide in their legislation. Nor has the US, though the Violence Against Women Act, which expired in 2018 and is awaiting reauthorisation by Congress, is considered “landmark legislation” because it makes it a responsibility of the federal government to prosecute domestic violence and support victims.
The UK Parliament only recently rejected a petition calling for femicide to be made a crime stating: ”It’s not clear what the petition is asking the UK Government or Parliament to do. Murder is already a crime, so we’re not sure what you’d like to happen by creating a new offence.”
However, Ivana Milovanović, a Serbian judge who is an expert in GBV, told UN Women, a UN organization that advocates for the empowerment of women and gender equality: “Femicide should be recognized as a specific criminal offense.”
“Femicide differs from other forms of murder because it is the gender-related killing of a woman only because she is a woman,” she explained. “This indicates that the root causes of femicide differ from other types of murder and are related to the general position of women in the society, discrimination against women, gender roles, unequal distribution of power between men and women, habitual gender stereotypes, prejudices and violence against women.”
Does writing femicide into law help women get justice?
It has been argued that by writing femicide into criminal code, first there is an acknowledgment of the misogynistic nature of these crimes, but also that there will be more accurate data collection that can, in turn, lead to better policy and practices that protect women.
In Mexico, for example, not only is femicide recognized in law, in 2020 the country’s Congress approved tougher sentences for femicide – 45 to 65 years in prison if convicted.
Staying in Latin America, Guatemala has a similar system, with specialist judges and prosecutors trained in dealing with cases of femicide.
But these provisions and penalties have not resulted in higher conviction rates, or a decrease in these crimes. The UNODC writes: ”Countries in Latin America have adopted legislation that criminalizes femicide as a specific offense in their criminal codes. Yet there are no signs of a decrease in the number of gender-related killings of women and girls.”
Looking specifically at Mexico, Meghan Beatley reports: “Paradoxically, even when women’s killers are caught and prosecuted, the category of femicide has made it harder to convict them.”
This is because prosecutors have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the crime was indeed perpetuated because the victim was a woman.
“The notion of gender-related killing, or “femicide,” requires an understanding of which acts are gender related — something that is subject to a certain degree of interpretation,” writes the UNODC in its 2019 global study on homicide. “In many cases there is a continuum of (intimate partner) violence that culminates in the killing of women even when perpetrators have no specific (misogynistic) motives.”
How can we reduce femicides?
Well, first, here’s what doesn’t work: telling women what to do or wear, and how to behave in order to avoid becoming victims of violence.
Following Nessa’s murder, there was outrage after the local council handed out over 200 security alarms to women and vulnerable people in the area where the teacher’s body was found. Writer Sophie Gallagher expressed her frustration in a column saying that this sort of response from the authorities, as well as guidance from the police advising women how to stay out of harm’s way, ”aggressively perpetuate[d] the female position as one of second-class citizens, whose duty it is to defer to the unalienable rights of violent men to exist.”
She added: “These “safety rules” are false assurances that society gives us to shuck off responsibility for what happens to us at the hands of the insidious misogyny it allows to run rampant.”
So, what does taking responsibility look like? The Small Arms Survey report called data collection “indispensable” to preventing gender-based violence. ”Data disaggregated by sex, age, ethnicity, victim–perpetrator relationship, and motivation for violence, along with contextual information, such as the location, time, and instrument of violence, will benefit efforts to diagnose, reduce, and prevent violence, including lethal violence,” its authors wrote.
When it comes to best practices, Peru’s government is often cited. Its action plan includes “several agencies with specialized task forces [working] toward femicide reduction and prosecuting the abusers, including emergency centers for women, a hotline for victims of violence against women, and the Specialized Police Squad for Prevention Against Domestic Violence.”
Ultimately though, to reduce GVB in all its forms, cultural and social norms must change. Research published by Bristol University Press suggests that societies must take a close look at their views of “masculinity and femininity, gender equality, domestic violence and femicide laws, patriarchal ideology, traditional values, the role of religion in society and media coverage of femicide and violence against women.”
*Header image caption: Sabina Nessa