Femicide: a global tragedy, no matter your gender

Updated Nov 17, 2020
10-MINUTE READ
Femicide involves the killing of women and girls because they are female. In 2017, some 87,000 women and girls were intentionally killed with gender being the main determinant. 

The United Nations has recognized femicide as the most extreme form of violence against women and girls. Since 2007, 15 countries have recognized it as a distinct category of killing. Many groups consider femicide to be a hate crime.

Examples of the practice can be deeply disturbing. Femicide can involve sexual violence, or other injuries calculated to degrade the female or her dead body. 

In this article, you’ll explore the distance the world has yet to travel, to identify and overthrow femicide. You’ll read how women and girls are helping shine a light on harsh realities, while crying out for accountability and change. 
 
  1. What is femicide?
  2. Who are the perpetrators of femicide?
  3. Where are femicide rates highest?
  4. What are the different kinds of femicide?
  5. Are there any laws against femicide?
  6. What is World Vision doing to help stop femicide?
  7. How do I help strengthen women and girls?

1. What is femicide?

Generally speaking, “femicide” refers to the killing of females mainly because they are female. The exact definition varies, depending on where you live or how you’ve experienced or studied the concept.

A woman with two little boys high on a hill, looking down at a community below.
“There were little girls who were badly injured … and a few of them died,” recalls Salma (in pink). She’s recalling the day soldiers in Myanmar gang-raped her and other Rohingya women and girls. Photo: Michael Subrata Rozario

Some groups believe that any killing of a girl or woman (for any reason) is femicide. But most groups understand femicide to involve targeted violence or killings based on gender. 

Here are a few notes from the World Health Organization: 
  • Femicide is usually perpetrated by men, but sometimes female family members are involved 
  • Femicide may be committed by intimate partners or ex-partners
  • Femicide may involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence, or situations where women have fewer resources or less power than their partners 
A man faces toward the camera. Behind him are a woman and two young children.
In Cambodia, Kari (right) has attended World Vision workshops and is no longer violent with his family. Programs like these are helping a new generation of males think differently about girls and women. Photo: Makara Eam

2. Who are the perpetrators of femicide?

Sometimes a woman or girl knows her attacker very well. Other times, the killer is a stranger. Broadly speaking, incidents of femicide can be divided into two categories:
  • Femicide within the family. Abusers and/or killers might be husbands or other intimate partners, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers or occasionally, a female relative. Nearly 60 per cent of murdered women or girls in 2017 died at the hands of intimate partners or other family members. One UN report notes that with so-called “honour” killings, female relatives can be complicit in the murder.
  • Femicide from outside the family sphere. Killers or abusers may not be known to the girl or woman in question. They may include soldiers, gang members or people who simply set out to target women. Canada’s infamous “Montreal Massacre” is an example. 
An adolescent girl and younger boy walk down a narrow alleyway together.
This alley in El Salvador is heavily controlled by the country’s dominant gang. In 2018, one woman in the country was murdered by a man every 24 hours – the highest rate of femicide in the world. Photo: Heidi Isaza

3. Where are femicide rates highest?

Based on this World Health Organization list, the countries where femicide occurs most often are El Salvador, Venezuela, the Central African Republic, South Africa, Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Guyana and Mexico. 

That said, it’s hard to create an accurate ranking of femicide rates by country. Reporting dates vary dramatically place to place. Femicide data for Zimbabwe, for example, was last reported in 1990.

A small group of women and young children in bright colours stand cloudy sky.
Zimbabwe hasn’t reported femicide numbers to the WHO since 1990. But recent studies indicate that it’s practised there, even by adult sons and daughters against their biological mothers. Photo: Munyaradzi T. Nkomo

The United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime collected all available statistics for the year 2017. They measure the incidence of femicide by the total number of occurences not as a percentage of the overall female population, as was done for previous examples in this article.
  • Asia – approximately 20,000
  • Africa – approximately 19,000
  • The Americas – approximately 8,000
  • Europe – approximately 3,000
  • Oceania – approximately 300
When it comes to being killed by an intimate partner or family member, Africa had the highest overall number to report. But again, when it comes to the number of women murdered per hundred thousand women alive, two Latin American countries are highest.

A girl or young woman crouches outside a hut made of mud, washing a red bowl. The sky is bright blue. The girl is alone, except for a dog, which appears to be walking toward her.
In Peru, 837 girls and women were murdered between 2010 and 2017. Many of the perpetrators were male relatives like husbands or fathers. Photo: Eugene Lee

4. What are the different kinds of femicide?  

 

  • Serial killings of women are often motivated by misogyny or hatred and can happen anywhere in the world e.g. the “Montreal Massacre” in Canada, in 1989. There is also the example of the many women murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton between 1978 and 2001.
  • Gender-based killings of Indigenous women. In Canada, Indigenous women experience much higher levels of violence than non-Indigenous women. Although just four per cent of the population is Indigenous and female, they represented 24 per cent of homicide victims in 2015 alone. Such targeting happens in other regions, too, such as Central America and Oceania.
  • “Honour” murders are committed when a female is believed to have brought shame upon her family. The killing is thought to restore the family’s honour. Perpetrators use stoning, stabbing, burning, beheading, forcing women and girls to commit suicide, or disfiguring females with acid resulting in death. *
    NOTE: There is significant debate regarding the use of the term “honour” in this context. It is important to note that there is no honour in murdering women and girls.
  • Genital mutilation-related femicide occurs when this cruel procedure, normally performed of girls between birth and age 15, results in infection and death. Loss of life is often considered an acceptable outcome of this procedure.
  • Dowry-related femicide may occur when a groom’s family is unsatisfied with the size of the dowry paid to them. Their son’s wife becomes “unsuitable” in their eyes.  She may be killed by the groom’s family or driven to suicide through harassment and torture. Dowry killings are widely reported in South Asian countries, accounting for up to 50 per cent of all female homicides.


An adolescent girl in a pink dress and pale pink headscarf sits in a chair, facing toward the camera. She is holding a document of some kind in her lap.
“I want to abolish dowry”, says 18-year-old Rukhshana in India, whose goal is to become a lawyer. Girls and women around the world are speaking out against oppressive systems which create the conditions for violence against women. Photo: Jim Kasom
 
  • Targeted killing of women in armed conflict is an all-too-common weapon of war. By punishing and dehumanizing females in enemy communities, militia seek to weaken those communities and gain the upper hand.
  • Organized crime femicide occurs in gang cultures, where violence against women symbolizes gang cohesion and masculinity. Women may be used as drug mules and are considered disposable. Femicide in these contexts may involve torture, abduction, mutilation or decapitation. Bodies are often dumped or displayed publicly as an example to others. Seven out of 10 countries with the highest female murder rates are in Latin America, where gang violence plays a major role.


Close-up of a row of five teens or young adults, shown from the shoulders up. The focus is on a female who appears to be listening carefully to something that’s happening off-camera. She is smiling slightly. All the young people are wearing white T-shirts.
Without opportunities to succeed, youth in Honduras are vulnerable to the temptation to join gangs for a sense of purpose and belonging. These young men and women are attending a World Vision workshop to build business skills and a life plan. Photo: Jon Warren

5. Are there any laws against femicide?

Various countries have passed laws related to femicide; some have codified it as a crime. They’ve done this at the passionate urging of local advocacy groups and international bodies alike. Here are some examples:

El Salvador and MexicoHave enacted legal reforms defining femicide as a criminal offence and follow-through with prevention and prosecution. In 2018, El Salvador created a new unit to oversee crimes related to women, girls and others vulnerable to violence. In the first four years of 2019, femicides in El Salvador fell by 30 per cent. Still, 76 girls and women died in those few months, just for being female.

Guatemala Enacted legislation in 2008, called the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women. With the support of UN Women, the country trained nearly 550 prosecutors on taking femicide cases to trial. Still, the country has the third highest rate of femicide in the world.

South Africa The country’s femicide rate is almost five times the global average.  In 2019, the country held a two-day Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide. They set out a plan of action to stop these brutal practises.

European countries The European Council formed a pact a decade ago called the Istanbul Convention. It was aimed at preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence. But not all countries have fulfilled their promises. Although 474 women were killed in Turkey in 2019, Turkey’s government has been looking at withdrawing from the convention.

Canada – The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability has noted that Canadian laws go by names other than ‘femicide’. Some examples are ‘family violence’ and ‘domestic violence’. The government of Canada did launch a national inquiry into the realities of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

A row of women in brightly coloured robes stands facing the camera. Each woman is wearing a headscarf. One woman holds a megaphone.
“Stop the beating and abuse,” appeal this group of South Sudanese women. Women and girls from small communities to the halls of global power are crying out against the practise of femicide. Photo: Christopher Lete

6. What is World Vision doing to help stop femicide?

“World Vision is a changemaker in the regions where we work. We get to the root of the issues. We empower entire communities to help prevent gender-based violence and femicide.”- Sophia Papastavrou, gender specialist with World Vision Canada

In many parts of the world, the concept of unequal gender relations has been deeply held for centuries, if not millennia. It’s at the very core of how people relate to one another and how its families and communities function.

Often, these core beliefs create an environment that makes gender-based violence not only common, but acceptable. Tragically, femicide can be a part of that.

Organizations like World Vision are acutely aware that often, there is no safe place for women and girls to escape violence. They explored this recently in Committed to Gender Equality, a report synthesizing the experiences of girls and women around the world.

World Vision is committed to helping people around the world understand the value of girls and women. They teach men and boys the importance of being supportive – not neglectful or hurtful – toward females, thus embracing their own full potential as males.

World Vision helps communities understand that girls and women have the same human rights, abilities and potential as boys and men.

A group of adolescent Indian girls sits cross-legged on grass looking up. The three girls in the front row hold soccer balls.
In India, “Girl Power” groups plunge into everything from human rights to football, for which coaching is given once a week. “At first, we thought football was a men’s game … but now my confidence has grown,” says 12-year-old Piya. Photo: Jim Kasom

World Vision teaches about gender-based violence in different contexts, helping men, women, girls and boys understand the biases they’ve inherited.

A World Vision male staff member stands in the middle of a circle of young people during a training.
In Colombia, World Vision runs high school sessions unpacking gender-based violence. Here, a staff member runs an activity addressing stereotypes of men’s and women’s roles. He uses a chart showing how aggression can escalate into violence. Parents will be involved in later meetings. Photo: Jon Warren

World Vision works with girls and boys together, through workshops and Child Parliaments, to build understanding of girls’ rights and abilities.

An adolescent girl stands in front of a small group of seated boys and girls, facing toward the camera.
In Uganda, a child parliament of girls of boys is helping save the lives of their peers. They partner with World Vision and local authorities to intervene on behalf of friends who are being abused. Working together this way helps boys see girls as equals. Photo: Nick Ralph

World Vision partners with respected local faith leaders to challenge community members to see women and men as created by God as equals. This helps both genders celebrate who they are, moving toward healthier relationships.

A small boy sits on the lap of a woman, looking toward her face as she speaks to him. The woman is wearing a bright orange headscarf.
Learning to respect the other gender as people and as equals is helping this generation of parents raise their children with new ways of seeing the world. Photo: Karen Homer

Through Men Care groups, World Vision helps men understand the rights and needs of their wives and daughters. Men learn to step forward as leaders, nurturers and protectors of their families and other community members.

A young man rests his head on the belly of a pregnant woman. His eyes are closed; his face looks peaceful.
This young father in Honduras grew up in a neighbourhood so dangerous even public transportation doesn’t go there. A shy child, he had joined a gang at 13. Then, he joined World Vision’s “Youth Ready” program, along with his future wife, empowering them both to face life’s challenges. Photo: Laura Reindhardt

World Vision helps raise up female leaders in communities, giving girls and women stronger opportunities to influence others. The next generation of children is growing up with such role models.

A young woman stands between an elderly man and an elderly woman. The three have their arms around one another and are smiling.
In Honduras, 13-year-old Yasmin, a World Vision sponsored child, is the Youth Mayor of her town. She is a child rights advocate and community organizer and faces subjects like abuse of girls head-on. Photo: Jon Warren

7. How do I help strengthen women and girls?

Most any World Vision program you support works to empower girls and women. To help a woman or girl in crisis, however, consider a donation to the World Vision Gift Catalogue.

Education, job training, counselling and healthcare are powerful tools for girls denied schooling, abused or forced into child marriage or sexual exploitation.

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