Homicide is considered to be the killing of one human being by another. In the specific case of women being killed because they are women, this has its own term: femicide. Why do we need a word for the killing of women? And what killings are considered femicides?
The term femicide was coined by author and activist Diana Russell, who in the mid-’70s argued it was essential to have a term that distinguished the gender-motivated murders of women from the gender-neutral word homicide. In recent decades, Latin American women’s movements, in collaboration with Latin American media, have put the term on the agenda. In the Latin American context, there is even a distinction between the term femicide which is defined as “the killings of women because they are women”, and feminicidio which also captures how states and governments are unresponsive to the killings of women. In 2020 alone, more than 4000 femicides were recorded across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The most common type of femicide is intimate partner murder. In 35% of the recorded murders of women in the world, the perpetrator is a current or former partner. Often, the victims have lived in abusive relationships for a longer period of time. In the Colombian capital of Bogota during the first Covid-19 outbreak, the number of calls the police got about violence against women increased by 225% between March to May 2020.
Not all women are safe with their partners, and not all women are safe within their own families. Femicides can also happen in relation to dowryA dowry is a payment, such as property or money, paid by the bride's family to the groom or his family at the time of marriage.close, be a consequence of preference for sons or happen in the form of honour killings. When a woman or girl is murdered by one or more family members for a real or imagined sexual act or other behaviour that breaks with social norms, it is considered an honour killing. In many cases, the perpetrator sees murder as a way to protect the family’s honour, in accordance with tradition, cultural practices or religious interpretations. Note that fathers and other family members who have committed such killings often describe strict social norms as the reason for doing so, and report that they seldom feel a sense of honour, contrary to what the terms suggest.
Femicides also happen in the context of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and in war and conflict. Women are overrepresented in human trafficking statistics, more prone to sexual exploitation and the violence they experience during conflict is often different from that of men. For instance, whilst sexual violence is used as a tactic of war against both men and women, it serves different purposes. Whereas sexual violence against men is often used to emasculate and sow a strong sense of shame, especially where homophobic attitudes are prevalent, sexual violence against women is an expression of domination and power. As a consequence, women are more often murdered to generate fear in their community.
Femicides are often related to racism and ethnic discrimination, as an expression of hatred or rejection of a woman’s ethnicity, skin colour, or nationality. Despite underreporting being a major issue, Canadian police confirmed more than 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012. In Brazil, underlying racist and sexist attitudes make Afro-Brazilian women especially vulnerable to femicide. Femicides are often also an expression of rejection or hatred against women’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In many cases, the perpetrator is of the opinion that the woman has violated the traditional sexual standards or gender norms. Sexual violence against and the murder of women then becomes a way of restoring a feeling of power and control. All these examples show the importance of an intersectional perspective on femicide.
As the distinctions in the definition of femicide in the Latin American context suggest, it is not only when women are intentionally murdered by individuals, but also when states, government and socialites allow for the death of women. When girls and women die as a result of harmful practices, such as genital mutilation, it is femicide. Also when women and girls die as a result of lacking health care related to safe abortion. This is why we need a word for when women are killed. Because these are not random occurrences, but rather the manifestation of harmful attitudes and norms against women of different intersecting identities.