When Alek Minassian plowed a rental van into a crowd on a Toronto street, there reportedly was one thing driving him: misogyny. Minassian is a reported incel—a so-called involuntary celibate—who, like others in the extremist community, advocate for violence against women. Among the 10 people killed that day, three of the five identified victims were women. Based on Minassian’s intense hatred of women, gleaned from his social media posts, their deaths can be categorized as femicides.
The intentional murder of women because of their gender is the most extreme form of gender-based violence—yet good global data on femicide and how to prevent it simply doesn’t exist.
We do know that one in three women globally will experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetimes, most often at the hands of a partner; such partner violence is the biggest risk factor for femicide. Of the 93,000 women killed in 2012, nearly half (47 percent) were killed by their partners. The case of Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius, serves as one famous example. But even though Steenkamp suffered from domestic abuse before being murdered by Pistorius, but her case was categorized as a female homicide, not a femicide.
Female homicides are often used as a proxy measure for femicide, but they aren’t the same thing. Dying as a woman is different than dying because you are a woman.
Given the recent tragedy in Toronto, it is ironic that Canada recently launched a national information center focused on femicide, the Canadian Femicide Observatory—established following a 2015 UN call for global, regional and national level femicide watch centers. A similar center has been established in the European Union, but both initiatives are in the nascent stages.
Elsewhere, countries have taken to the adoption of national laws as a way of addressing femicide. In Latin America, the number of countries criminalizing femicide rose from four to 16 between 2010 and 2015. (Most recently, the murder of Marielle Franco, an Afro-Brazilian feminist city-council woman, was called a political femicide, and the UN has called for an investigation.) The adoption of such laws is welcome, especially in the region with the highest violent death rates for women, but without adequate enforcement, these laws only reinforce notions of impunity.
Even in developed contexts where domestic violence laws have been in place for more than two decades, femicide is not specifically counted—and existing U.S. law doesn’t require that we do so. In my own research in Nicaragua and Brazil, women believed that the national laws adopted in their countries had actually made violence against women worse. Several studies, including my own work, have found that reported intimate partner violence increases following the passage of legal protections. What it is unclear is whether such laws decrease reporting stigma or result in an actual increase in violence.
We know little about what works to prevent partner violence and femicide in low- and middle-income countries. To address this concern, the UN Human Rights Office and UN Women created a model protocol to guide countries in the investigation and prosecution of femicides. Even so, there is little data about the effectiveness of laws in responding to or preventing such violence. More broadly, differences in terminology and data collection methods are some of the reasons that have been cited for the inadequacy of global information on femicide.
In my graduate studies in public health we were often told that “if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” Without scientifically sound and comparable data on femicide, thousands upon thousands of women are dying—and because we haven’t accurately named their cause of death, it’s as if it isn’t happening.
It will take a tremendous amount of coordination and resources to fill the void when it comes to studying why women face particular dangers and how to best keep them safe. And we will never be able to prevent the gender-based killing of women until we better measure femicide.