In all societies, gender-based violence is one of the most common forms of human rights violation . At its root is a patriarchal culture that entrenches historical gender gaps, giving women an inferior role within society, in every sphere – from education to labour, from personal relationships to domestic duties – trapping them in prescribed roles and far too often resulting in acts of psychological or physical violence.
Incidents of violence against women occur mainly – though not only – in the domestic sphere. In most cases it is relatives, partners or former partners of the victim who commit these acts. When such violence ends in murder it is – under a variety of definitions – called “femicide”.
Of the countries which participated in the data collection and were able to find the appropriate information, only Cyprus identifies the crime of femicide in its legal system. Others (Greece, Serbia, France, Austria, and Germany) have no real legal recognition for femicide. Similarly, in the case of Italy there are aggravating factors for domestic and sexual violence, but to date there is no aggravating factor for gender motive. This was precisely the goal of the Zan bill, which was eventually rejected.
The European Institute for Gender Equality (Eige), the primary statistical reference for this subject, defines femicide as the murder of a woman because of her gender. This follows the definition provided by the UN Statistical Commission, and also adopted by Istat in Italy.
Together with 15 other newsrooms in the European data journalism network, under the direction of the Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Reporting (MIIR ), we collected the most recent data on femicide and murders of women to illustrate the situation in the 15 countries with viable data.
Our first hurdle was finding data, mainly due to the lack of harmonisation at the European level. Our main references were Eige’s 2021 report and the European Union’s statistical office (Eurostat), as well as national sources – in Italy, these were Istat and the Ministry of the Interior . Another problematic element relates to the timeframe required to identify the perpetrator and his or her motives, and thus to define whether it is a homicide or, specifically, a femicide. This is why the most recent data is often from before 2019, making it difficult to assess new developments over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Femicides: definitions and data in Europe
If we only include crimes explicitly categorised as “femicides” by the countries in question (the 27 member states and Serbia) we see that there is fairly comprehensive information up to 2018, the current limit for data at the European level (2020 data from Eige will be available no earlier than 2024). In 2018, we know that 425 femicides took place in 16 states. We only have information on eight states for 2019 and 2020, and for seven states in 2021. As mentioned, the timeframe is relevant here, as we have to wait for the conclusions of trials to learn about perpetrators and motives.
In any case, it must be said that the figure is massively underestimated. No data could be found for eight member states (Poland, Bulgaria, Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal and Romania). Moreover, these figures are a far cry from the 6,593 homicides committed by family members or (former) partners recorded by Eurostat.
There are other factors that would help identify femicides and produce estimates even before the conclusion of trials. These have been indicated by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the UN body for gender equality and women’s empowerment (UN Women), within their statistical framework for measuring femicides and gender-based crime. However, these factors are equally problematic.
For example, consideration is given to whether the homicide occurred following an incident of sexual violence, or whether the victim and perpetrator were in a hierarchical position relative to each other. Such information is rarely available, making effective measurement problematic – all the more so when we consider that each EU country uses different categories and definitions, which are still not harmonised.
Given these difficulties, the most appropriate way to estimate the number of femicides is to use the “domestic” category. In fact, this category of homicide is measured by most EU countries, and it is undoubtedly the environment in which women are most often killed, as women, though not the only one.
In 2020, a total of 745 such homicides were recorded in the 15 states for which we have information. The numbers vary widely for each country, both in terms of absolute numbers, and as a proportion of the total female population.
In Latvia there were 2.14 homicides per 100,000 women in the domestic sphere, amounting to 22 incidents. Lithuania comes next, with 0.87 (13 in absolute numbers). The lowest figure is reported by Greece (0.16).
For all the wrong reasons, the Baltic countries also stand out from other EU countries when it comes to voluntary murders of women in general, regardless of context and perpetrator. Again the record in 2020 is held by Latvia, with 4.09 cases per 100,000 women (for a total of 42). This is more than twice the numbers in Lithuania and Estonia (1.95 and 1.43 respectively), which occupy the second and third places, far ahead of all other EU countries.
Italy struggles to improve
According to the latest update from the Ministry of the Interior , 319 homicides were recorded in Italy in 2022, 125 of which had female victims (about 39 percent). A total of 140 incidents took place in a domestic context, of which 103 had female victims (almost 74 percent). There were 67 crimes committed by partners or ex-partners, 61 of which had female victims, or 91 percent.
While there has been a general decrease in voluntary homicides since the 1990s, Istat notes, the number of women killed by people close to them remains high. In fact, in proportion to total homicides, the figure is increasing compared to other categories of homicide.
Overall, Italy has the second lowest figure in Europe for the incidence of homicides in the total population: 0.48 per 100,000 inhabitants. Italy’s figure is higher only than that of Luxembourg (0.32), and is well below the EU average (0.89). Italy's figure for homicides of women is also lower than the EU average (0.38 versus 0.66).
However, while the number of male homicide victims has fallen sharply in Italy in recent years, the same cannot be said of women, for whom the improvement has been much slower and contained. This would indicate a structural problem that requires specific policies. In the early 1990s, Istat reports, for every woman killed, five men were killed. Over time, this ratio has gradually decreased until reaching 1.6 in 2021.
If we consider killings of women by family members, partners or former partners of the victim, we see that the incidence of such crimes has decreased slightly (from 0.36 in 2012 to 0.32 in 2021). However, this is an increase in relation to the total murders of women. In 2012, the proportion of such homicides stood at 74 percent, more than 10 percentage points lower.
The incidence of murders of women committed in the domestic sphere has remained essentially unchanged, registering only a slight, and fluctuating, decline. The figure peaked in 2013, when 0.42 women per 100,000 were killed by a relative, partner or former partner. In 2020, the figure dropped to 0.32.
In contrast, the ratio of domestic homicides to total voluntary homicides of women appears to be increasing significantly. In 2017, when it was lowest, the ratio stood at about 73 percent. In 2020 it exceeded 85 percent, following a gradual increase over the previous years.
Gender-based violence and femicide is a complex and structural phenomenon that is particularly difficult to combat. There are minimal improvements over time, remaining almost unchanged compared to the parallel overall decline in violent acts and homicides in general, at least in the Western world. This is because it is a specific problem deeply rooted in patriarchal culture, which first and foremost requires an overturning of values. Education, inclusion of women in the workplace, better sharing of household duties: this is where prevention should start.