Femicide and Covid-19: an epidemic of violence against women

An exclusive data analysis by 19 media outlets reveals another dark side to the pandemic: a marked increase in murders of women, and violence against women, at the hands of domestic partners. The investigation also highlights serious flaws in the way institutions monitor this type of abuse.

Published On: March 14th, 2023

Last year, at least twenty-three women were murdered at the hands of their partners in the Czech Republic. The number of such brutal acts is on the rise. This is the message from the ROSA centre, which helps women and victims of domestic violence and publishes grim statistics every year based on press monitoring.

During the pandemic a number of organisations in Europe sounded the alarm about an increase in gender-based violence . However, the latest official data collected by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), detailing violence against women, is for 2018. A fresh batch is unlikely to be available until next year. Meanwhile, Eurostat data – on intentional homicide, rape and sexual violence against women caused by a partner or family member – is available until 2020, but contain gaps, including on the Czech situation. Concerning recent years, we are therefore a bit lost.

To get a clearer picture of what was happening in people’s homes during the pandemic lockdowns, nineteen partners from the European Data Journalism Network undertook to collect actual data on violence against women and femicide in the EU-27 and Serbia. The project’s leader was the Greek investigative centre MIIR, while Deník Referendum participated on behalf of the Czech Republic.

According to the findings, in several countries there was indeed an increase in the number of murders of women at the hands of their partners, and a rise in other acts of violence against women. However, in many countries we encountered problems in collecting data from official sources. This points to serious holes in how institutions monitor violence against women.

Femicide at the hands of partners

Femicide refers to the murder of a woman based on her gender. A typical case is a murder at the hands of a partner or family member. Based on the latest data, our research estimates that, in the 20 European countries that have been tracking this phenomenon, there were 3,232 femicides committed by an intimate partner between 2010 and 2021.

But this data, based mainly on police sources, may underestimate femicide. In fact, Eurostat data for the same 20 countries between 2011 and 2021 reports 6,593 murders of women at the hands of either a partner (4,208) or a family member (2,385).

However, data on femicides is not measured in the same way in different countries. It may therefore be more appropriate to track the percentage increase or decrease in femicides in each country.

Of the eight countries for which we were able to collect data on femicides during the pandemic period, the upward trend was confirmed in half of them. The most noticeable jump occurred in Greece. Here, the number of femicides increased by 187.5% year-on-year in 2021. Three Greek women were murdered in one forty-eight-hour period last summer.

Greece has long ranked bottom in Europe for gender equality. However, our investigation also shows a marked pandemic increase in femicides in Slovenia and Germany, and to a lesser extent in Italy.

Unfortunately, recent official data for the Czech Republic was difficult to get hold of. Eurostat records the number of women murdered at the hands of their partners or family members only until 2020, and there is no data for 2018. According to the Czech police department, pre-2019 data sorted by the victim’s gender is not available due to a database corruption. Finally, the Czech police statistics only record whether the victim and the perpetrator were related, but not whether the victim was a partner. It is therefore not possible to conclude unequivocally whether or not the murder was a femicide.

“It would be necessary to supplement the statistics with an indicator that would mark it as such. Of course, the police have the data because they investigate the cases, so it would not cost any additional effort, it would just be an extra column in an Excel spreadsheet,” said Jitka Poláková, director of the organisation proFem, to Deník Referendum.

So we had to resort to unofficial sources. According to the ROSA centre, 24 women were murdered by their partners in the first pandemic year, then 21 in the second, and 23 last year.

At home with the perpetrator

The fact that available statistics in many countries do not show an increase in femicides does not mean that other forms of violence against women did not worsen during the pandemic. Cristina Fabre Rosell, who leads the gender-based violence team at EIGE, points out that the absence of an increase in femicide may be due to the circumstances of lockdowns.

“Women were often less at risk of femicide during the pandemic precisely because they remained locked in the home with the perpetrator, who thus felt more secure. All the power and control was in his hands. The woman had nowhere to go, no way out. So there was an increase in partner violence, but not in its most serious form, femicide,” Fabre Rosell told our partners at MIIR.

Fabre Rosell also mentioned the concern that there will turn out to have been an increase in femicide after the end of lockdowns, when partners lost control over women. Ms Prokopová, from the ROSA Centre, agrees that something like this may have happened in the Czech Republic.

“Significant risk factors include leaving the partner. Sometimes a violent partner simply cannot bear the fact that he or she is losing the object of their violence. They cannot bear the fact that the victim wants to get out of the violent relationship,” she explained to Deník Referendum.

The increase in other forms of violence against women is to some extent confirmed by official Czech data on rapes. These have been on the rise for the past five years, and especially in the last two years. The exception is the year 2020, for which the statistics of the Czech police and Eurostat both show a year-on-year decline.

The statistical decline may not reflect reality, however, as explained in a February 2021 research report by Blanka Nyklová of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences and Dana Moree of the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University. Domestic violence – including sexual violence – probably increased during the state of emergency, even though state institutions reported a slight easing.

In practice, especially during the first lockdown, the bar was raised for seeking help. Victims turned less frequently to official authorities, i.e. the police, crisis centres or child-welfare authorities. In contrast, those organisations providing easy-access services, such as ROSA, proFem or Acorus, saw an increase in contacts almost immediately.

In interviews with victims, the researchers noted a particular increase in psychological violence. This might mean threats, hints of physical assault, name-calling, ridicule, or shouting and breaking things. Victims who are exposed to psychological violence over a long period can be similarly or even more damaged than they might be by acts of physical violence that leave visible traces.

Economic coercion, i.e. an abusive situation resulting from financial dependence on a current or former partner, should not be overlooked. This may be used by the violent partner to manipulate the victim or to limit her options.

The latest available statistics on economic violence in the Czech Republic come from the EIGE surveys between 2015 and 2018. At that time, Czechia saw the second highest increase in this phenomenon out of the ten countries that tracked the data – a rise of more than a quarter.

The interviews suggest that the deteriorating economic situation formed an important dimension of the overall violent situation. For example, some women were rethinking their intended departure from a violent partner during the pandemic. For those who had left their partner, financial hardship often pushed them to return. Others were unable to call social workers for help simply because they did not have the necessary credit.

“The increase in relationship violence cannot be attributed purely to the consequences of the anti-covid measures,” says Naďa Gubová, head of social services at proFem. She points instead to the confluence of several crises, including the international context of war and its associated financial stresses.

Insufficient data and legislation

But the epidemic of violence against women did not take place in a vacuum. The Czech Republic performed poorly in other areas of gender equality during the pandemic. According to EIGE , in 2021, Czech women were involved in intensive childcare to a greater extent than in most other EU countries: 58% of women, compared to 11% of men, cared for children under the age of 11 entirely alone.

Only 4% of men compared to 30% of women cared for older people or people with disabilities for more than four hours a day. The gap is the highest in Europe. And women were eight times more likely than men to report that they did all or most of the housework alone (specifically 65% of women compared to 8% of men). Again, the difference is one of the highest in the EU.

We are also one of the last EU members not to have ratified the Istanbul Convention, which aims to prevent and combat domestic violence and sets out criteria for its prevention. The question of data collection is central. The reports by our partners show that, following ratification of the Convention, data monitoring became more accurate in several countries, including Spain, Austria and Slovenia.

This leaves us in the unflattering company of Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia – countries which, according to the EIGE index, are in no position to boast about gender equality.

Here, perhaps, things are now in motion. In mid-February, the European Parliament called on the EU Council not to delay ratification of the convention any longer. A week later, the EU Council decided that the European Union should accede to it as a whole. And the Czech justice ministry sent a proposal for its ratification for inter-ministerial review with a deadline of mid-March . The EU has also been preparing a draft directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The need for better data collection by public authorities is made clear by the fact that it took nineteen teams of journalists several months to obtain the necessary figures, and even then the resulting picture is difficult to parse. Better data would help reveal the true extent of violence against women in Europe.

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