The undeclared war on women in Europe: A systemic failure to prevent femicides
Is there anything more that authorities can do to protect women?
“Come over, I killed my wife…”
On January 22nd, the first femicide for 2023 took place in Nikaia. A 50-year-old man killed his 54-year-old wife by strangulation, after first beating her up. He then called the police to tell them what had happened, uttering the aforementioned phrase on the phone. According to witness accounts and what became known after the murder, the perpetrator had been arrested by the police following domestic violence in the past, in 2017 and 2019. However his subsequent treatment by the justice system is not known. Could this crime have been avoided?
This question comes up again and again after the news of yet another femicide. Is there anything more the authorities could have done to protect the woman before she lost her life?
Apostolos Tsapas strongly voices his disappointment for the failure of law enforcement to protect his own children. 28-year-old Konstantina Tsapa, along with her 29-year-old brother Giorgos Tsapas were murdered on 5 April 2021 by her estranged husband in the village of Makrinitsa in Pelion. The double murder dominated the news at the time. It was during the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, a period in which a number of restrictions were still in place. Four days before the murders, the estranged husband had violently attacked the mother of his child and her parents in the same house.
Apostolos Tsapas describes his devastation to MIIR: “During the fight in Makrinitsa, before the murder, he had come to the house and beat all three of us: me, my wife and my late daughter. Then the police took him away, and detained him for two or three hours. But they let him go, saying to me, ‘We can’t hold him any longer’. They kept calling my daughter and asking her, ‘What should we do with him? We can’t keep him any longer’. And so he was released. We filed a complaint, but they didn’t arrest him. As for the blame… The harm has been done, my children are not coming back.” He adds that his daughter had filed an injunction against the perpetrator, but it was not heard in time.
“The injunction was scheduled to be heard the day after the murder. And of course he killed her in the meantime, so there was no time for them to be heard”, laments Anthoula Anasoglou, a lawyer for the victims’ family. “He had been accused of domestic violence in 2021, but was never arrested in the context of self-incrimination. The police forces had a tolerant attitude towards the perpetrator. In fact, in the courtroom at the trial, a police witness admitted having told the man’s wife, on his release, ‘It’s okay, he loves you, he won’t hurt you’. And ‘It’s okay, they’re a couple, they’ll get back together’. The police witness said this in court and it caused a lot of tension”.
In small places where everyone knows each other, as in the case of Makrinitsa, police officers often go beyond their duties in domestic violence cases, explains the lawyer of the Tsapas family: “The police officers play the role of psychologists and try to reassure the woman, without understanding the seriousness of the situation. And for Konstantina it was just an inevitable spiral towards the void, like a thriller where you already know the ending. Photos in the days leading up to the killing showed her having been abused, she had a black eye. He had been cursing her, locking her up, there was endless violence. This had been going on for two years. He had beaten the brother and the parents before. For two years there was a systematic cover-up. It all pointed to a tragedy, and that’s what happened…”
The causes of a predictable crime
As shown in the cross-border investigation the Mediterranean Institute of Investigative Journalism (MIIR) coordinated in the context of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) along with 18 media partners in order to gather updated data on the extent of gender-based violence in Europe, in Greece the pandemic period was characterised by a frightening increase of 110,2% in victims of physical violence in 2020 and 90,4% in 2021, after 3,609 victims of physical violence were recorded in 2020, reaching 6,873 in 2021. Incidents of psychological violence in Greece increased from 2,906 to 5,350 during the period in question, and those of sexual violence increased from 69 to 141. Similar acts of physical, sexual, economic and psychological violence were experienced by thousands of women across Europe.
Based on the data that participating newsrooms were able to gather, the highest increase in officially recorded femicides took place in Greece by 187,5%, rising from 8 incidents in 2020 to 23 in 2021. Comparing the two years of the pandemic combined with 2019 revealed a rise in femicides in Greece, Slovenia, Germany and Italy. Similarly, Eurostat data on voluntary homicides of women by male intimate partners or family members shows an increase of 156% in 2021 in Greece compared to 2020.
In Greece, the rise in domestic violence and femicide led the supreme court prosecutor Vassilis Pliotas to issue an encircular in November 2021. It called on prosecutors to intervene imminently, to further the process of arresting the presumed perpetrators of such crimes and for the related criminal cases to be heard as a matter of priority in court, so as to avoid all delays in delivering justice.
He even explicitly mentioned the term “femicide”, which was the first time a senior prosecutor had made an argument for the legal establishment of the term in Greece. He also called for victims of domestic violence to be supported when reporting violent behaviour. In other words, he asked the prosecutors to apply the law on dealing with domestic violence – specifically Law 3500/2006, which has been in force in our country since January 2007.
Despite the Pliotas initiative, in practice the issues of both police protection and the administration of justice are not moving as fast as they should.
Kiki Petroulaki, a psychologist and chair of the board of the European Anti-Violence Network , stresses to MIIR that a perpetrator – as in the Makrinitsa case – “will not actually be restrained, because before the femicide happens, the authorities tend to perceive domestic violence as ‘a fight within the couple’ rather than the serious crime that it is. This is precisely why, even when restraining orders or injunctions are issued, no one monitors their implementation or punishes their violation. And so victims and their children not only do not receive the protection they deserve, but are often even exposed to greater risk. No one monitors the restraining orders. Right now we have been waiting for a month for the issue of restraining orders for a mother and child. We don’t even know if the case file has been opened at the prosecutor’s office.“
In domestic violence, most crimes – apart from rape and homicide – are misdemeanours, explains Kiki Petroulaki, which means that short suspended sentences are given. “This should be about the police arresting the perpetrator and the authorities punishing him immediately. Not the police arresting the perpetrator, the prosecutor letting him go and within two hours the perpetrator being able to return back home. The system has a big responsibility when it sees that there are older complaints against a perpetrator, and it does not take any action. Domestic and sexual violence is never an isolated incident, it repeats itself, with the same victims and different ones. This is an issue that has been discussed across Europe in recent years – the recurring pattern as a risk factor. It is also present in the Istanbul Convention, which aims to prevent violence against women and domestic violence. Having a previous record is an aggravating circumstance and should ring bells for the police and the public prosecutor’s office and make them respond more quickly. Putting someone in jail for a misdemeanour is almost impossible, even if they have four convictions in a row. But even if they were put in jail, I don’t think it would solve the problem of domestic violence.”
According to this experienced psychologist, who has been called upon to advise many female victims of domestic violence in Greece, it is clear what is needed: strict measures that will immediately remove from the perpetrator the ability to control the life of his victim, combined with systematic monitoring of the safety of victims and their children.
The Istanbul Convention includes many such provisions for the protection of domestic-violence survivors and children who are directly abused and/or exposed to their mother being abused. Unfortunately, our country chooses not to apply them, or even violates them in law. Examples include Articles 26, 31 and 45 of the convention, which aim to protect children, and Articles 48, 51, 52, 53 and 56, which focus on risk management to prevent recurrent victimisation.
“The effective implementation of these and other provisions of the convention requires, for every reported case of domestic violence, an honest, immediate, coordinated, cross-sectoral response by police, justice and support services, both specialised and general. The European Anti-Violence Network is attempting to design this, alongside the authorities and using an exchange of good practices between Greece and Iceland within the framework of the “ACF project GR_IS_UnitedForDVSurvivors” , explains Kiki Petroulaki. She adds: “At the end of 2023 we will see whether the protection of women and children and the reduction of femicides is indeed a political priority – or whether the only thing that interests our country is not to ‘sound’ like we are violating European and international legislation and the human rights of survivors of domestic violence and their children.”
Among the data analysed as part of the MIIR-EDJNet investigation was the number of prosecutions, convictions and imprisonments of domestic violence perpetrators. This enables a relative estimate of the relationship between prosecutions and imprisonment for male perpetrators of domestic violence against women. From the available data collected in Greece for 2020 it is estimated that, relative to the number of perpetrators of domestic violence against women (4,436), the prosecution rate was 70.6% (3,132). Convictions account for 20.9% of these prosecutions, while imprisonment was a penalty in an estimated 13.7% of these convictions. However, comparing the number of offenders with the number of men imprisoned, it is estimated that for every 100 offenders recorded in 2020, only two were imprisoned. So overall, just 2% of perpetrators who used violence against female partners were imprisoned.
It is worth noting that there are likely to be discrepancies in the data and that these percentages are entirely indicative. Indeed they may be overestimated, as the prosecutions brought in 2020 also relate to cases reported in 2019 or even 2018. However, they are a relative estimate of the relationship between prosecutions and imprisonment of male perpetrators of crimes of violence against women over a given period of time and they indicate a trend. Similarly, it is interesting to note the percentage of cases where prosecutions ceased due to a process of pre-trial agreement (21.7% and 33.4% of cases in 2020 and 2021 respectively), as well as the percentage of cases in which restraining orders were issued (from 0.6% to 1.6% of cases in 2016-2020).
On average, therefore, only 3% of men charged with domestic violence in Greece and 5% in Slovenia ended up in prison annually in the period 2016-2021. In contrast, in Spain the equivalent annual average figure for men prosecuted for domestic violence and ending up in jail was 30%.
Sentences and recognition of femicide
The Greek government recently moved to toughen up the penalties for perpetrators of domestic-violence crimes. But is this the solution?
“Tightening up sentences not only is not a panacea, but it seems ineffective. This does not mean that the punishment should not be proportional to the gravity of the act. But, in itself, a strict sentence is not enough to deter the perpetrator or to reaffirm citizens’ trust in institutions and the administration of justice”, says Chara Chioni-Chotouman, a lawyer at the Diotima Centre for Gender Rights and Equality. She also stresses that the failure to properly implement the law risks renders “the response to crime meaningless”, and adds that the frequency of violence against women shows that Greece needs to reassess its attitude to such crime, by recognising femicide. However, she points out that the most immediate need is to “update the protection tools by, for example, tightening rules for those who violate decisions which are intended to protect the victim and prevent crimes of violence“.
In an article last October, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis made it clear that he had no intention of legally recognising femicide in Greece, but promised to do everything possible to restrict the phenomenon. Among other things, he referred to the establishment of 18 police “Domestic Violence Offices”, charged with managing incidents and providing information to victims. However, cases of understaffing have been reported in those offices, as well as behaviour by officials that discouraged women from reporting.
“There are ongoing trainings for police officers to better manage incidents of gender and domestic violence,” argues the deputy minister for Demography, Family Policy and Gender Equality, Maria Syrengela, adding that the legislative framework can only partly contribute to the prevention and deterrence of violence against women. However, when it comes to the legalisation of femicide, she says that “it is not a question of what to call these crimes against women but more importantly to focus on prevention and to put an end to the attitudes that allow abusive behaviours”.
The picture is very different in Cyprus where femicide was recognised in July 2022 as an offence in its own right, following a proposal by the then speaker of the Cypriot parliament, Annita Demetriou.
Speaking to MIIR, Ms Demetriou, who is the first woman to occupy her position in Cyprus, said the term “femicide” does not negate the term homicide, but rather has a complementary and reinforcing effect: “In order to have an effective response we must first of all call a spade a spade. This is precisely why we insist on the importance of the term femicide, because it encodes, signifies and names the most extreme form of gender violence – and any modern self-respecting society must admit that victims of domestic and sexual violence, victims of misogyny, victims of intimate partner violence, victims of ‘honour’ crimes or crimes over religious beliefs – these victims are women, not men. Therefore, the establishment of femicide as a specific offence – as opposed to the common-law crime of homicide – emphasises the intensity, origin and cause of the crime. There is therefore a need for legal separation. At the same time, another valuable aspect is added to the toolbox for eradicating the phenomenon: the possibility of an official record of femicide.”
As the MIIR data investigation has demonstrated, there is a significant pan-European data gap in terms of the actual number of femicides in the first place, but also of female victims of physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence. There is also significant uncertainty over the number of perpetrators of these crimes. In Greece and across Europe, experts and women’s groups who advocate the recognition of femicide as an offence, stress that this may be the only way to tackle underreporting of crimes that kill and harm thousands of women every year.
The data resulting from this project, as well as the findings on the institutional gaps in prevention and support for victims and on the administration of justice, show that the undeclared war against women in Europe will not stop until citizens and politicians face up to the problem. There is a need to invest financially and qualitatively in strengthening the system of protection for women and vulnerable groups. Laws need to be implemented, and young people need to be better educated on gender equality and gender relations. This would at least be a small tribute to the women who have lost their lives to crimes that could have been prevented.
* Read part 1: “Femicides: the undeclared war on women in Europe”
* Read part 2: “The undeclared war on women in Europe: Trapped in the maze of domestic violence”