Femicide: The Need To Name Gender-Based Killing of Women in the United States

Referring to murders of women as “femicides” can help stop the erasure of the ongoing murders of women and the larger social patterns connecting them.

Miya Marcano (left) and Gabby Petito. (@bringmiyahome and @gabspetito / Instagram)

Within the last few weeks, the high-profile murders of Gabby Petito and Miya Marcano have triggered extensive media coverage and social media attention in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, thousands of BIPOC women have suffered the same violent fate and their names never make it to the news. Even when their stories are told, Americans almost exclusively refer to such crimes as homicides. This language misses critical context and the bigger story—one that links both high-profile and ignored cases of murdered women. 

Their deaths are femicides and referring to them as such in media coverage, social media posts and the law is essential to understanding the scope of the problem. 

The silence around the idea of femicide in the United States leads to the erasure of the gendered nature of ongoing murders of women and the larger social patterns connecting them. Until this problem is addressed in our country, women remain uniquely and chronically vulnerable to lethal gender-based violence. 

What Is Femicide?

Homicide, from ancient Latin origins, literally means to kill a man. What happened to Gabby and Miya was femicide—a term referring to the murder of women because of their gender identity. In other words, femicide is the intentional murder of women because of their womanhood; it a crime generally perpetrated by men that is inherently and deeply linked to gender roles, relationships and expectations of women who are victims.

To be clear, when a woman is shot as a bystander in a gas station robbery, it is not a femicide. When a jealous ex-husband threatens, beats and murders his former wife, it is femicide. When a woman is abducted, raped and left murdered along a public highway, it is a crime of femicide.

The most recent available governmental data reports 2,997 women were murdered in the United States in 2019. We have no idea how many of these crimes were femicides because law enforcement does not recognize the language of gender-based murder.

U.S. Approach to Gender-Based Violence Lags Behind Even Some Repressive Countries

The U.S. has a long, sexist history of not recognizing or even naming gender-based violence. Marital rape wasn’t even a crime in this country until the late 1970s and only recently became illegal in all 50 states. Just last week, California eliminated the spousal rape distinction which made it a lesser crime than other forms of sexual assault. 

Femicide is not a concept used in the United States’s legal system, media or social media; consequently, most Americans poorly understand it. This is not the case in many other parts of the world. 

Over 17 countries in Latin America have explicit laws against femicide that emerged out of feminist and human rights activism. Many of them are countries with long and troubling histories of violence and repression like Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile; yet they name and prosecute lethal violence against women in ways not yet possible in the United States because femicide is not a recognized crime in this country.

March For Our Lives student protest for gun control in March 2018. (Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0)

A United Nations symposium found femicide is a crime happening in every country of the world. Recently a U.N. Human Rights expert called on “all states and relevant stakeholders worldwide to take urgent steps to prevent the pandemic of femicide or gender related killings of women and gender-based violence against women, through the establishment of national multidisciplinary prevention bodies.”

And yet despite increasing global awareness of a growing problem, the U.S. continues to obscure the gendered nature of femicide by not naming it. 

Language Matters

Making the distinction between homicide and femicide is not a superficial issue; it is an urgent necessity. It allows us to see the pressing reality of patterns in the murders of women, which are obscured when the media focuses on only a few select cases, usually white “good girls,” who become only isolated, tragic stories. 

Using the language of femicide allows for law enforcement and others to collect data and statistics on gendered murders. It allows the public to see differences and similarities in women’s vulnerability, based upon other aspects of identity like age, race, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation. It enables the legal system to reform the justice process by which crimes are prosecuted. It bolsters efforts to build support for and among victims’ families and friends. It also enables our country to more fully join a global movement dedicated to challenging violence against women.

At a time when images of suffering Afghan women fill the media, it is easy for women and men in the United States to condemn such horrific gender violence without turning a critical lens back to our own country. The United States is not exceptional; long-standing patterns of gender-based violence, the most extreme of which is femicide, are striking features of contemporary U.S. society that have yet to be named and acknowledged.

From necessary inclusion in the congressional reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act to our own social media posts, it is time we join the broader world, call femicide what it is and create laws against it.

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Brigittine French is a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa, where she specializes in violence and gender.