Femicides: Belgium is still lagging behind in data collection

Last summer, Belgium adopted a pioneering European law on femicide, which aims to make up for lost time in collecting data on gender-based violence. However, feminist associations fear that it will not be enough to effectively curb the problem.

Published On: April 30th, 2024

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Their names were Laurence, Ingrid, Marie-Anne and Stéphanie. All four died this year in Belgium at the hands of their husbands. They were victims of femicide, i.e. the murder of a woman because she is a woman.

Like those women, more than 14,143 women were intentionally killed in Europe between 2012 and 2022. At least 4,334 died at the hands of their partner, and 2,472 at the hands of a family member. These are the numbers taken from Eurostat statistics, supplemented and studied by fifteen European media partners of EDJNet, including Le Soir.

However, these tragedies are only the tip of the iceberg. The data from the European Statistical Institute is not complete: some years are missing from the statistics collected during this period, and a minority of countries, including Belgium, have no official data on the gender of victims of intentional homicide.

The Belgian government does collect general data on cases of domestic violence, as well as on suspects of domestic violence and their gender, but according to Dries De Bont, communications officer for the public prosecutor’s office, “no figures on victims can be provided”. Jana Verdegem, press officer for the federal police, agrees: the identity of victims (age, sex, etc.) is not included in the available statistics. “We have data on the breakdown between minors and adults and between men and women for the perpetrators, but not for the victims”, she explains.

“We’re still working on the count,” says Marie-Colline Leroy, member of the Ecolo political party, and Secretary of State for Gender Equality. Following the adoption of the Stop Féminicide law in the summer of 2023, which recognises and defines the different types of femicide and provides for measures to prevent, analyse and monitor such crimes, Belgium will finally have official data. This measure is long overdue: since 2016, the year Belgium signed the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, our country has not complied with the treaty, which requires it to collect statistical data on gender-based violence.

“Not enough support at federal level”

What accounts for this delay? For Sylvie Lausberg, General Secretary of the European section of the International Council of Women (ICW), it is due to the difficulty of transposing the Istanbul Convention, and international treaties in general, into Belgian law. “But as far as the Stop Femicide law is concerned, the difficulty is twofold”, she explains. First of all, responsibility for women’s rights is generally assigned to a secretariat of state, not a ministry, which means that “structurally, there is not enough support at federal level, and particularly in the Belgian Council of Ministers (the Kern), to move things forward. Another concern is the fragmentation of powers between the various bodies. For the adoption of the Stop Femicide law, all the ministers and secretaries of state had to work together to push this issue at their own level”.

To make up for the lack of data, feminist associations have taken the issue head-on. Based on press articles, the Stop Féminicide blog gives a name and a face to all the victims of femicide, and counts them. It is these figures that public officials use to devise the policies they need to put in place. “We have statistics on sexual violence thanks to the work of the CPVS (centres for the treatment of sexual violence), but when it comes to femicide as such, the only information we had was compiled by feminist associations”, says Marie-Colline Leroy. However, these figures come with serious limitations.

A titanic and lonely undertaking

Every day, Aline Dirkx of the Stop Féminicide blog scours the French and Dutch-language newspapers looking for potential femicides, using only the keywords body, domestic violence, children… “My only source of information is the press. But not all femicides are mentioned or named as such”, explains Dirkx. She carries out this titanic task alone, “so when I fall ill, as I have over the last three weeks, the figures are no longer up to date”. Lack of information in the articles means that some crimes are potentially overlooked. “I keep the articles when I can’t work out what happened. I keep dozens and dozens of such articles a year”.

Since 2019, the Stop Féminicide blog has counted between 24 and 27 femicides committed each year in Belgium. According to this count, the overwhelming majority of victims die at the hands of their spouse, ex-spouse or ex-lover. This is the case for the four victims of femicide in 2024, 19 of the 26 cases recorded by the site in 2023, 22 of the 24 in 2022, 19 of the 25 in 2021, 21 of the 27 in 2020, and 20 of the 26 in 2019. That’s around eight femicides in ten.

Faced with a lack of official data, the Belgian authorities finally decided to take action. In the summer of 2023, Belgium became one of only three countries in Europe, along with Cyprus and Malta, to adopt a law officially recognising femicide. The law sets itself apart by defining what constitutes femicide, and drawing a distinction between four types: intimate femicide by a partner or ex-partner, non-intimate femicide by a third party (e.g. a sex worker killed by a client), indirect femicide, which occurs after acts of violence (e.g. forced abortion, or genital mutilation), and gender-based homicide (a transgender man who dies in the context of partner violence).

While Belgium is one of the worst performers when it comes to data collection, it is now one of Europe’s legislative pioneers in the fight against femicide. Marie-Colline Leroy attributes this acceleration to a “wake-up call from the government and a genuine political will” since the start of the current legislature. “We’re trying to see how we can catch up, because to really understand the phenomenon and its scale, we need more accurate official statistics”.

“The law is not intended to change mentalities”

While emphasising the important step forward represented by this law, the feminist associations, which were consulted during the drafting of the legislation, point out that Belgium still has a long way to go. “It’s a framework law”, says Sylvie Lausberg, “and not very well funded. It responds to the need to keep statistics. But this law is very meagre in terms of prevention, and virtually non-existent on the issue of primary prevention [prevention which aims to reduce as much as possible the risk of violence occurring, through education in particular, even though all danger cannot be completely eliminated, Ed.]. The law does not aim to change attitudes, so we are not tackling the cause of the problem. Femicide is the culmination of a continuum of violence. The real question is: why is it that the vast majority of perpetrators of femicide are men? How is it that our men, of all ages and social strata, can at some point think that the solution is to kill this woman who doesn’t meet their demands? It’s the sexist structure of society that legitimises interpersonal violence”. Aline Dirkx also calls for more resources to be deployed for primary prevention, in particular continuing education and education for young people. She also remains vigilant about the effective implementation of data collection and the training of the police and judiciary.

On the ground, Pascale Poncin, a lawyer who coordinates the Lawyers Victims Assistance training programme, notes that things are moving slowly in the direction of the law. “Having a law that just sets out the main principles is not very useful. There are a number of very practical measures being taken by associations and the Bar to make the Stop Femicide Act effective”. In particular, Poncin cites the training of lawyers who specialise in gender-based and domestic violence, and a criminal court specialised in dealing with domestic violence in Charleroi. A Belgian judge also recently used a definition included in the Stop Femicide Act – that of “coercive control”, i.e. the strategies put in place by a perpetrator of violence to control his victim – to hand down a court decision in a child custody case.

However, Marion de Nanteuil, a criminal lawyer specialising in gender violence, fears that the Stop Femicide Act is out of step with the reality of criminal procedure and the solutions it can provide. “While this law is ambitious in the sense that it reflects a real change in mentality, and the fact that the term femicide has been incorporated into the Belgian legislative arsenal carries great symbolic weight, I fear that it is out of touch with the realities of criminal procedure. First of all, the term ‘femicide’ has not been included in the Criminal Code, and criminal courts only rule on the basis of this Criminal Code. A new specific provision of the Penal Code does refer to intra-family murder, which is more serious than murder, but not to femicide”.

The second concern raised by the lawyer pertains to the protective measures offered to victims. The law mentions temporary residence bans and bans on location or contact, but in practice, they only apply in very specific circumstances, which often do not correspond to the reality experienced by victims of sexist violence. “If we look at it from the perspective of citizens, they will see in the text of the law that as soon as the police intervene, they will be able to request a specific protective measure – such as a ban on location – but the reality is that this is not really possible. This is not a particularly positive outcome,” laments lawyer Marion de Nanteuil. “However, the official recognition of the term ‘femicide’ will standardise the collection of statistics, and that is a real added value of the law.”

While the State Secretary believes that the police and judiciary take these issues seriously – “on the ground, there is a very positive collective dynamic, and everyone is trying to combat this phenomenon” – the creation of an official database takes time. The Institute for the Equality of Women and Men (IEFH) is tasked with developing two reports based on the data: the first one is focused on statistics that will be released annually, and the second, a more qualitative report, will be biennial. With the start of the development of these reports planned for October 2025, the IEFH estimates that the first report will be published “most likely for 2026”. Lacking statistics, the institute has recently begun working with the judiciary and police to identify existing data, blind spots, and easily obtainable statistics by cross-referencing data. “But this is really just the beginning,” emphasises Véronique De Baets of the IEFH.

The law also provides for the creation of a Scientific Committee for the Analysis of Femicides, which will be chaired by the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (INCC) and will work to better understand the risk and protective factors against femicides.

The implementation and adaptation of tools take time. “It’s technical and pragmatic. How do we make it work well, so that encoding by the police and judiciary is done correctly… It requires coordination,” explains Marie-Colline Leroy.

For a “Ministry of Women’s Rights”

To ensure this coordination, as well as the effective implementation and funding of the law, Sylvie Lausberg advocates for the establishment of a genuine Ministry for Women’s Rights. According to her, numbers won’t measure everything. “Forced suicides, women dying from hemorrhage, or depression as a result of a life of repeated violence, are not counted. We see only one supposedly official figure, which ultimately amounts to a grim list that fails to measure the real impact that femicides have on society.” Belgium will of course be able to catch up with some of its European neighbours, but if Belgium really wants to assume its role as a pioneering country, it “must play a leading role in advocating for a strong international response to femicides and be able to collaborate with other countries to exchange good practices and strategies,” argues Aline Dirkx. Belgium can take other countries as an example, like Chile, where femicide perpetrators are stripped of their parental authority. This law is a first step, but the road is still long to ensure more justice and protection.

Original source: https://www.lesoir.be/582610/article/2024-04-22/feminicides-la-belgique-toujours-la-traine-sur-la-collecte-des-donnees

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