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Decade of advocacy fails to reduce global femicides

by Maher Sattar December 5, 2022

This Q&A was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on December 5, 2022. Subscribe here.

Femicide is the intentional murder of women because they’re women. A new study by U.N. Women and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that 81,000 women were killed globally in 2021 in murders that were motivated by their gender. This was the same number killed as a decade ago — nothing had changed, the report said.

The study was launched as part of the 16 days of action against gender-based violence, an annual campaign that starts on Nov 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The authors call for better data collection on femicides — listed as a hate crime in many countries, it isn’t recognized in the legislation of many others, including the United States. 

We asked Yeliz Osman, one of the authors of the report, for her views. Her comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Why is “nothing has changed” a key finding of your report?

Why that is a key finding, or why is that alarming, is because over the last decade we have seen an increase in focus and efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. And new laws, policies, services. There has been increased momentum and increased action to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls. 

And yet, when we look at the most lethal, the most brutal form of violence against women and girls, which is femicide, we haven’t seen much change over the last decade.

What prompted the study?

We’ve been working together with UNODC for the last few years in developing a statistical framework for the measurement of femicides, or gender-related killings, to strengthen the way countries record and capture data on femicides. And this came about as a sort of natural next step of that collaboration.

For four out of 10 cases of women and girls that are killed intentionally, there’s inadequate information to be able to identify them as femicides. So this means that whilst the numbers are already high and seem alarming, they could be even higher. 

Not all countries look at femicide as a specific crime type. It may not be in the penal codes, it may not be classified as a specific crime type. So they may not be collecting data on femicide, they’re probably collecting data on homicides. And then disaggregating whether it’s male or female. And we know that there’s huge challenges and problems with disaggregated data.

So in 2021, around 45,000 women and girls worldwide were killed by an intimate partner or other family members, which is shocking. More than five women or girls are killed every hour by someone in their own family or by an intimate partner. But we also know that this is the tip of the iceberg, because if there’s inadequate information in four out of 10 cases, that means that there could be more femicides occurring that are not being counted.

What are some of the problems with disaggregated data?

In many cases, we don’t even know what the connection was between the victim and the perpetrator — whether they were family members, whether they were in a relationship, whether they knew each other previously. Other identity characteristics, like age. Not all countries are consistently providing that information. 

And then it’s also to do with other contextual factors. There are certain indicators that would suggest a case is femicide. For example, if there’s any signs of sexual violence. If there’s an unequal power relationship, for instance. If there’s a history of domestic violence, domestic abuse, these are all signs that it was likely a femicide, but not all countries are systematically capturing this type of information. 

More than half the 81,000 femicides in 2021 were the result of intimate partner or family violence. But your report says data in the public sphere is scarce. What does that mean?

Data is particularly scarce outside of the private sphere. So femicides that occur in the public sphere can occur in the context of organized crime, conflict situations, human trafficking, or femicides that may occur as a result of sexual violence, rape by someone unknown, or unrelated to to the victim. So we know that the figures are alarming, but that they could actually be a lot worse than what they appear to be. 

Your report noted that during the pandemic, there was a rise in femicides in Europe and the Americas that was driven by violence from family members who were not intimate partners. I thought that seemed interesting.

I think that’s a very interesting finding as well. Because prior to COVID, gender-related killings were commonly perpetrated by an intimate partner. But during the pandemic, in those two regions where there was an increase identified, the data would suggest that this was largely driven by killings by other family members. 

And I think one of the possible explanations for that is the additional stresses that were placed on families with the lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions. So that could have been one of the drivers for this, but I think it really requires a more detailed sort of analysis and understanding of why that occurred.

Can you give an example of a country that has been successful in bringing down femicides?

One example of a success story is South Africa, where they’ve had sustained reductions over the past 18 years. They’ve analyzed why that may be and they’ve identified gun control laws, and having comprehensive strategies, policies and services in place. 

And also working together with women’s rights organizations and community-based organizations to hold [officials] to account. Because often, even when you have laws and policies in place, it’s not always happening effectively. 

So women’s rights organizations are playing a huge role. And we’ve got evidence that shows that where you have strong and autonomous, feminist, women’s rights organizations in place, that’s where you have the most transformative change in policies and initiatives to stop violence against women and girls. So I think we can clearly see that in the case of South Africa. And I think that’s a clear learning for all countries.

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