Femicide – the murder of women and girls who stepped off the plantation – or didn’t.

While the vast majority of global murder victims are men killed by strangers, women are far more likely to be killed by someone they know and who supposedly loves them. The United Nations found that women killed by intimate partners or family members account for 58 per cent of all female homicide victims.  (UNODC, Global Study on Homicide 2018 (Vienna, 2018)  https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/GSH2018/GSH18_Gender-related_killing_of_women_and_girls.pdf)

As in the U.S., little progress has been made globally since the last review.  In the U.S. the number of women killing men has declined since shelters became available and women could flee rather than have to kill in self-defense, but the number of men killing women has not. While physical assault has declined, coercive control has increased.

The UN data was produced by national statistical systems that are known to underrepresent the actual number of women murdered. Many of the countries don’t even have disaggregated data for women and men. The focus of the study was on the killing of women and girls because they failed to comply with the gender norms of that society.

While the term “femicide” is used to describe such killings, only 18 countries have actual laws prohibiting femicide (all in Latin America) so it is not possible to compare statistics. But most murders of women and girls fit that general definition.  “Femicide” was coined to point out the gender-related motivation associated with the murders of women and girls.  As work on domestic violence changed over the years, the terms changed to obscure the actual perpetrator.  When I started working at a shelter in 1976, we used the term wife beater – that made clear who was doing what to whom.  Then it changed to woman beater because all the victims weren’t wives. Then it changed to domestic violence that eliminates the perpetrator and obscures the act.

“Femicide” came into vogue starting in the 1970s to make clear that it was “the misogynous killing of women by men motivated by hatred, contempt, pleasure, or a sense of ownership over women, rooted in historically unequal power relations between women and men.” In so-called “honor” killings, female members may also participate.

The fact that such violence continues unabated after four waves of attack (see Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies published in the 1400s, Mary Wollstonecraft and Vindication of the Rights of Women published in the 1700s, Carrie Nation and the fight for temperance in the 1800s [because they thought alcohol caused the violence], and the current battle since the 1970s) should convince us that something is fundamentally wrong with the structure of the family and intimate relations.

The UN report says, “A total of 87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017. More than half of them (58 per cent) ̶ 50,000 ̶ were killed by intimate partners or family members, meaning that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner.”  The number has been going up globally, and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused another rise in violence against women because of isolation and loss of financial security.

“The largest number (20,000) of all women killed worldwide by intimate partners or family members in 2017 was in Asia, followed by Africa (19,000), the Americas (8,000), Europe (3,000), and Oceania (300). However, with an intimate partner/family-related homicide rate of 3.1 per 100,000 female population, Africa is the region where women run the greatest risk of being killed by their intimate partner or family members, while Europe (0.7 per 100,000 population) is the region where the risk is lowest. The intimate partner/family-related homicide rate was also high in the Americas in 2017, at 1.6 per hundred thousand female population, as well as Oceania, at 1.3, and Asia, at 0.9.” While the largest number of deaths is in Asia (because they have the highest population); the highest risk for death is in Africa.

As usual, the “what about the men?” cry is heard but the UN found that 82 per cent of the victims were female and 18 per cent were male. That is substantially higher than previous numbers when only 10 per cent were men and half of those were killed by other men.

Even with the high rates, violence against women is universally underreported.  Women are afraid to report because of fear, economic dependence, hostile police reaction, and societal brainwashing that it’s a private matter not to be taken outside the family or her fault.

In 2016, the country with the highest percentage lifetime reports of physical violence (Uganda) also had the highest percentage of murders of women.  In 2016 Jordon had the highest rate of people who believed violence against women might be justified but they had a relatively low rate of murder.  While the Dominican Republic had a very low rate of people believing that violence against women might be justified, they had the highest rate of murder.

The beating and murder of women and girls occurs across the globe and in every one of the fourteen countries I have worked in.  I always found that I had far more in common with the women than I had differences. Among European countries, Lithuania ran away with the highest rates of death of women and girls at 2.9 per hundred thousand with Hungary next with 1.6.  The low was Slovenia at .2 and the Netherlands next at .4.

In Latin America, the prize was taken by Jamaica at 9.4 with Belize next at 8.1 while the low was Chile with 1.0. In Asia, the high went to Mongolia at 2.6 and the low to Australia at .7. It is interesting that Mexico is allegedly the top country for femicide, with Guatemala second, but they were never mentioned in the high rate comparisons.

A report on July 16, 2020 from Mexico (https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/05/americas/mexico-femicide-coronavirus-lopez-obrador-intl/index.htmlsaid that domestic violence and femicide are at record heights during the pandemic.  April was the deadliest month in the last five years with a record 267 murders of women. Still the president dismissed the information as false because the cases were not investigated. He unfortunately sounds too much like the president north of him.

As the report noted, “For all girls and women murdered, 34% are murdered by intimate partners; 24% by other family members; and 42% by perpetrators outside the family.  Rates differ – 69% were murdered by intimate partners or family members in Africa; while 38% were in Europe.” Most often women were murdered by strangulation, stabbing, beating, or shooting.  Most murders occurred in the home of the victim or the perpetrator. Advocates for victims have been warning police for years that strangulation attempts are a very serious as a warning of a future murder.  Like everything else they ignored us and many women suffered.

The connection between violence against women and murder is not straightforward.  In the Latin American and Caribbean countries they have high levels of murder but not other types of violence. In Europe, they have low levels of murder but high levels of violence.

Arizona has a very high rate of murder of women. We placed in the top 10 states for murdering women in 11 of 22 years from 1996-2017.  In 2019, we placed 7thin the nation with a rate of 1.92 or 68 women murdered every hundred thousand.  The national rate was 1.29. Black women were murdered in Arizona at 2.55 while white women were murdered at 1.13 – i.e. Black women were murdered at twice the rate of white women.  Eighty-six percent of the women knew the killer and 69 per cent of the murders were committed with guns.

Motives for Murder

The primary motive for murder by partners or ex-partners remains jealousy and fear of abandonment.  A common exercise in public presentations or classrooms is to ask the men what they fear about women. The number one response is rejection.  Then ask the women what they fear about men. The number one response is violence and death.

Globally the UN found the same motives: possessiveness, jealousy, and fear of abandonment.  Half the men in an Australian study killed their partners within three months of her leaving him.  Other motives for men are along the same lines:  suspicion of infidelity, sexual jealousy, termination of the relationship. The motives reported by women are self-defense after years of suffering. Yet men get on average five years in prison while women get on average 20.

As the 100thanniversary of the 19thamendment celebrating women’s right to vote approaches on August 26, several documentaries and books have come out lauding that 72-year fight by women for their rights. But the complete history of the amendment remains missing.  Originally it was about far more than voting. It was about women being equal citizens and not chattel of their husbands.  When a woman married, she lost her civic identity.  He owned her property, her children, and her.  He could beat her or sell her or kill her or put her away for life in a mental asylum.  She could not sue or sign a contract or buy property in her own name.  She could not serve on a jury or keep her own wages if she worked or keep her own name if she wanted.  Her identity disappeared into his and they became “one.”  He was that one.

The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments at the first women’s convention in 1848 asked for far more than just voting.  It declared women civic equals to men and insisted on all rights.  That is why, when the action was reduced to voting only and passed in 1920, Alice Paul and others knew they had to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for women to have full constitutional rights.   (Reconstructing Liberty, Equality, and Marriage: The Missing Nineteenth Amendment Argument, Nan D. Hunter, 2020. This paper can be downloaded free of charge from: https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/2296; https://ssrn.com/abstract=3644591)

Research has shown that males who adhere to a more rigid “conventional,” (or “toxic” as we might call it today), masculinity are more likely to be violent toward women.  Be wary of the conservatives and religious types.

Depending on the study, completely different characteristics have been found.  Some studies have found that men with less education, childhood maltreatment, watching violence in their own home, excessive use of alcohol, and a sense of entitlement over women are the most likely to be violent. Some studies found that the males who commit intimate partner homicides in the U.S. are poor, young, members of minority groups, and often with a history of violence or substance abuse.

But a study in the U.K. found that men who kill their intimate partners have higher education and more successful employment and less crime.  In other European countries as well, the perpetrators are less disadvantaged with regard to employment and criminal history. One U.S. study found that men with a college education were more accepting of the idea that it was all right to hit a woman. The racist structure of U.S. policing could well account for this difference. We know a higher percentage of abusers exist among those in uniform – police, military, judges, lawyers, and doctors – men in power.  Yet the police do not scrutinize those groups as closely as they do men of color.

Even when convicted, many men remained in complete denial that they had done anything wrong and said their behavior was acceptable.   Half of them showed no empathy toward the victim.  A third had no remorse.  Some denied the violence and claimed the woman fell on the knife repeatedly. A similar case occurred in Scottsdale, Arizona where the perpetrator claimed his wife fell on a knife over 100 times. And of course – the excuse we have all heard a thousand times – “look what you made me do”.

In Turkey, a study could find no difference among men who murdered women and “normal” men. Attempting to maintain power by reacting in a violent way is very typical masculinity.  It’s not mental illness.  It’s not unusual.  It’s not caused by alcohol. It’s the structure of patriarchy.

In the research and reporting of domestic mass shootings e.g. at schools, theatres, churches etc. one piece of information that is often missing is that the shooter is always a man and usually has a history of violence toward women. Often the trigger is that a girl turned down a date request or his wife left him.  Violence in teen dating is highly associated with later violence and should be discussed in sex education classes.  But in Arizona, the legislature wants to prohibit any sex education including that “consent” is necessary for any relationship to be equal.  Teen boys really need to learn that the pornography they see on the internet is not sex and is not what the woman wants – or will agree to.

While research is scarce on same-sex murders, the little available shows that male-male violence is about twelve times more likely to occur than female-female violence.

Other Excuses for Murder

The so-called “honor” killings illustrate the extreme consequence of men’s domineering relationships with women.  If a woman chooses to marry someone other than the person the family chose, if she engages in pre-marital sex, or if she runs away, that has brought shame on the family and she must be sanctioned with death.

When I lived in Algeria, my assistant and translator was a 26-year-old woman with a degree in English and Math.  She was not married and did not want to get married. Fortunately, her father was a lawyer and we got along well and he was, for the time and place, very modern.  He gave her permission to go with me to O’ran for a conference, though we rode there in a car with a  male driver who was not a family member. Her mother objected as did her older brother, but the dad ruled the roost.  We returned her home on Sunday evening, dropping her a block from her house so her family would not see her in a car with a strange man. Monday morning she arrived at the office black and blue. Her father had not been at home and her brother had beaten her because she had gone to the conference.

She is now 37, has a job teaching at a university, her father is still alive, and she is not married.  She’s hoping she’s too old for anyone to want her now so she can avoid marriage altogether.  I’m terrified what will happen when her dad dies and her brother becomes the head of the household, and I continue to encourage her to move to Quebec.  (She speaks French as well as Arabic.)

Dowry-related killings are another particularly female punishment.  Often the husband and/or his family will harass and abuse the bride to extract more dowry and either she commits suicide or they kill her so the man can marry another woman and get more dowry.  They are called “kitchen deaths” in which allegedly a kitchen stove exploded and burned her to death.  Dowry has been prohibited since 1962 and dowry deaths were added into India’s penal code in 1986 but regardless of the legislation, the practice remains active in some religious and cultural traditions in South-Asian countries.  The Indian National Crime Records Bureau indicates that dowry deaths account for up to 50 per cent of all female homicides.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is another example of violence against women.  When I worked in Egypt for a women’s business group, I met with a large number of women who were successful entrepreneurs with power and money and connections. One night we talked about FGM.  Each woman had experienced it. They all hated it.  They all were angry.  And they had all done it to their daughters.  I was stunned. “If you hated it and you were angry, why did you do it to your daughters?”  The women generally agreed that no one would marry their daughters if it was not done, and they assured me that every girl wants to get married. Others said that it’s so much worse to do it when you are grown up so better to do it when you are a child and can forget.

I pointed out that none of them had forgotten. I asked if all of them had wanted to get married.  Several had not but felt they had no choice – and in fact they hadn’t.  FGM now and then was illegal in Egypt and had been for many years. They had done it anyhow. They had had the connections and money to get it done under the legal radar.

Other systematic violence against women includes mass rapes such as in Rwanda in 1994 and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998-2004 so the women will be shunned and ostracized, and they may be forced to bear the abusers child.  Mass murders of Yazidi women took place in what was called the Islamic State. Sterilization has been used a tool against Black, Hispanic, Roma, and Native American women.  In the 1970s, a program went on in Los Angeles to sterilize all such women who came into the delivery room, without informed consent and often even without their knowledge.  At that same time in Los Angeles, I, a 22-year-old college educated white woman with no children wanted to be sterilized and ran from doctor to doctor to find someone who would do it.  No one would.

We also know from the Missing and Murdered studies going on now that aboriginal and indigenous women are murdered at a higher rate.  In Guatemala in the 1980s, indigenous Maya women were murdered at a high rate. Organized crime and sex trafficking also result in the murder of millions of women annually.

When I worked in Vladivostok, the common statistic was that 50,000 young Russian women left Russia every year as victims of sex trafficking and never returned. Most sex trafficking victims die within four years.  I was at some fancy consulate dinner and was seated next to a man who was going on about how the demographics in Russia were leading to disaster – they were losing population year after year and they needed to do something to increase the birthrate like pay women to produce more children.

I suggested that he focus his efforts on ending sex trafficking instead.  He was completely befuddled.  He could not understand how sex trafficking had anything to do with the demographic problem. I asked, “What part of biology class did you miss?”

This was the same dinner party where Black men dressed in white livery encircled the room stationed about eight feet apart with their white-gloved hands folded in front of them waiting on the guests for our dozens of courses and drinks. One of the Russian men was going on about the problem the U.S. has with Blacks and said, “We don’t have this problem in Russia because we don’t have any Black people in Russia.” Pushkin was Black.

My head popped up, my mouth was agape, and I looked directly at one of the Black men across from me with my eyebrows cinched and my forehead awash in questioning wrinkles.  He shook his head ever so slightly – don’t say anything. I looked to the man on his left and then to the one on his right – both did the same thing. Just slight movements of the head as they continued to seemingly stare straight ahead.  I shut my mouth, took a deep breath and sat back in my chair.  My indignation was not worth their lives.

Killings as a result of sexual orientation or gender identity have also been labeled gender-related because the motive behind the killing is that the person does not fit into the stereotyped gender that society has assigned.

Eight centuries after the Inquisition, women are still being murdered for sorcery or witchcraft – but now as then, it’s really to grab their property. The Christian church still believes in witches (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_magic) and the Catholic church still does exorcisms! http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/sacramentals-blessings/exorcism.cfm

Female infanticide and sex selection abortion occurs in countries where boys are favored.  The resulting imbalance of boys then forces them to go out of the country to find marriageable women that they then kidnap or buy.  Though sex selection abortion has only been shown to occur in South and East Asia and in some countries in south-eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus, the Arizona legislature passed a bill in 2011 to prohibit it.  In fact what it did was stigmatize and profile Asian and Black women.  The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the State Conference NAACP fought the law to the 9thCircuit and when we lost, we let it go rather than make bad law at the Supreme Court.  The law remains on the books. (A.R.S. §13-3603.02)

The highest homicide rate of any set of women ever studied – 18 times that of other women – is for prostituted women. Some studies argue that it’s 60-120 times higher. Most of the women are killed by johns over the fee, because of robbery, or because the john really hates women. The Nordic Model is the only response to prostitution that respects the woman; offers her an exit strategy; and punishes the pimp, facilitator, and john for their violence toward women. Nine countries have now adopted it because of its proven success (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada, France, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, South Korea, Israel).

Theoretical explanations

Different theoretical approaches to the murder of women and girls lead to different methods of response.  The feminist approach is connected to patriarchy and the imbalance of power between women and men, so that men use violence as a tool to keep women under control. Equality is the solution.

However, the countries that have the highest portion of women in power still have major problems with violence against women. The women in the Nordic countries have said they think it’s because the men feel they are losing their power so they react with violence.  We can certainly see in our own government that men are flailing about wildly and violently against women.

The criminological approach has led to what some are calling “carceral feminism” because it relies on the criminal justice system for a response.  Punishment is the solution. While there are short-term benefits such as giving the woman time to flee, long-term it has not been shown to work and has negative impacts on vulnerable populations in a racist structure.

The public health approach failed when it was found that neither alcohol nor mental illness have anything to do with violence against women but it may succeed when looking at ACES scores that lead to long-term trauma from childhood. Prevention is the solution.

All the approaches have some benefits, some detriments, and need creative re-thinking.


A common training experience was well illustrated in my first presentation to Russian prosecutors that was interrupted within seconds.  A prosecutor in the front row, raised his hand and said, “We don’t deal with domestic violence.  We only deal with serious crimes here.”

I said, “Do you prosecute murder?”

“Oh yes, that is most of our caseload.  That is a serious crime.”

“And of those murders, how many of them are husbands murdering wives?”

“Way more than half,” he said. “And we get some wives murdering husbands too.”

“Then you deal with domestic violence.  If only you had dealt with it when he was beating her, rather than waiting till he killed her, you would have one more assault case and one less murder.”

The other prosecutors clapped.  He was not well liked I found out later. 17,000 Russian women a year were murdered at that time with a population of 150 million people compared to 3,000 American women murdered a year with a population of 300 million.

In 1984, Dr. Kathleen Ferraro, I and a male psychologist who had arrived at the police training academy to talk about domestic violence were physically escorted out of the facility by police when they heard what we were going to say.  Twenty years later, they asked us to come back.  Dozens of women were killed and thousands beaten in those 20 years.

The Global Study on Homicide offers a variety of solutions, most of which don’t work. It suggests that internationally,  femicide should be defined and named – similar to the Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor memes –  Say Her Name. It advocates use of the criminal justice system and punishment which hasn’t worked very well.  It’s implemented in a racist way and doesn’t change the behavior of the men.

Use of the criminal justice system presents other problems when the elements of the crime are so difficult to meet it can never be prosecuted.  For example, when I moved to Russia, women could file a criminal complaint about domestic violence only if the injury was severe enough that she was required to spend three or more days in the hospital.  During my time there, a consortium of Russian women got that law repealed.  Seventeen years later, Putin put it back.

There is of course the reporting problem when police, judges, and lawyers are themselves in the category of groups that participate in violence against women the most.

The issue of family presents extra problems – e.g. custody or visitation of children, changing the name of the children, guardianship of children etc. In Guatemala they have specialized courts to deal with violence against women cases much like we have mental health courts and veterans’ courts because of the particular problems they bring.

Research has been done on the progress in ending intimate partner violence in countries that started working on this long ago (i.e. the mid 1970s); intermediate countries (1980s/early 1990s); and newcomers that have been working on it since the mid 1990s.  A link was found on available statistics, but no link was found on reducing violence against women.  That is pretty depressing for someone who has been working on it since 1976.

The focus has been on legal changes, early interventions, and multi-agency efforts  (expertise and training).  We have tried them all here and nothing much works.  Perhaps the focus on ACES and the work on trauma informed responses will have an impact.

A community response like the one in Vietnam has proven very effective.  When a woman in a village tells the other women that her husband is being violent, the other women go to that house in the evening, surround it carrying pots and pans and utensils, and bang on them for hours.  That lets the man know “we know,” and it lets the community know “this man is no good.”  He is then shunned the next day at work and on the streets, and most of them stop their behavior.

Another example was in Norilsk, a Russian town above the Arctic circle.  The head of the mining company, where everyone worked,  was very much against domestic violence.  He developed a “yellow envelope” program.  When he heard that a man was being violent, he had his staff prepare a letter to him telling him all the reasons this was not acceptable and then delivered it to him at work where others would see it in a bright yellow envelope. Again, everyone now knew and he was shunned until he fixed his behavior.

The company director also told me that north of the city there were two indigenous villages. In one, the men reigned and the place was in shambles.  They did nothing but drink and fight and beg for aid.  In the other, the women were in control.  They allowed no drinking, there was no violence, and they had developed a well-functioning, self-sufficient community.

In Turkey they developed an electronic bracelet for the man to wear so that if he came into proximity of the victim, she would be warned so she could hide or escape.  They also created a smartphone app so women at risk could share their location information with emergency centers at all times.

In the public health realm, the Healthy Teen Relationship Campaign in the Bahamas is an example.  We in Arizona tried to implement such a program back in the 1980s. Still today, it is being blocked by the legislature.


The UN Global Study admits that tangible progress has not been made despite the money spent and programs run.  The initial response of “send them to the police to make a report, the doctor to make a record, the lawyer to get a divorce, and the judge to get justice” is sending the fox into the henhouse when these institutional actors are the very ones most likely to be involved in violence against women themselves.

Then we sent women to the counselor when the problem was not them, but the patriarchal system arrayed against them. It is not women’s problem to solve. They are not the ones committing the violence.  It is men’s problem to solve.  Twice I have had men come to me asking to work with battered women because they thought what men were doing was so bad.  I said, well we don’t need you to work with women.  We need you to work with men – teach them to stop their behavior. Neither man wanted to do that – it was too scary, too threatening. Not all men do this.  Some are doing fabulous work to stop it like Tony Porter and Jackson Katz and Daniel Saunders. But we need a hundred thousand of you.  Until men step up and stop other men’s violence, until masculinity is redefined, the best advice is to social distance from those who might expose you to the pandemic of violence against women and children just as we all now social distance from those who might expose us to a biological pandemic.




1 thought on “Femicide – the murder of women and girls who stepped off the plantation – or didn’t.”

  1. Thank you Dianne for an illuminating post on an important matter. Patriarchal norms I bid good riddance to are not reflective of a modern civilization. Hard to watch but very telling their reactions “men are flailing about violently” it is all on the record for the history books.

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