Femicides: the undeclared war on women in Europe

This unprecedented cross-border investigation, conducted with the participation of 18 newsrooms across Europe, attempts to shed light on femicides and rising violence against women at the time of the pandemic, as well as on the staggering shortage of up-to-date data on these phenomena.


Illustration: Una Rebić/Pod črto

“Every time it happens, you relive it. It’s terrible. I always think, ‘Oh that mother, that father, what they have to go through’.” For Katerina Koti, the mother of 31-year-old Dora Zacharia, who was murdered in Rhodes in September 2021 by her ex-boyfriend a few days after their breakup, each new femicide announcement is another small tragedy. Dora was the 11th victim that year, in a list that was destined to grow considerably…

In the middle of last summer, three women lost their lives in less than 48 hours in different corners of Greece at the hands of their partners. On July 31, 2022, a man stabbed his wife to death in Rethymno when she asked him for a divorce. The next day in Zakynthos, another man savagely beat his wife and then killed her with a knife. A few hours before her murder, the woman had gone to the local police station to file another complaint against him, after he had beaten her again. Just hours later, a 17-year-old girl in Peristeri would become the youngest female murder victim.

This kind of “epidemic” of murders of women by their current or former partners is the culmination of a trend that has long plagued Greece and seems to have intensified during the recent pandemic. And not just Greece: in Spain there were four murders of women in different cities in one day at the beginning of the year. Similar grim reports are arriving from other European countries, fuelling the debate on whether femicide should be recognised as a crime in its own right. So far only two European states, Cyprus and Malta , have ventured to take this step.

But what is happening in reality? Has there been an increase in the number of women murdered in recent years by male partners or family members? Is this development consistent with a wider increase in gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, during the pandemic period? Has there really been an increase in femicide rates in Europe? And which countries are having the most difficulty in curbing violence against women?

The MIIR-EDJNet cross-border data investigation

The answers to these questions are not easy to find, as no official data has been published at a European Union level for the period after 2018. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), which is in charge of conducting research and monitoring policies on violence against women, launched a survey in 2020, but the results are not expected to be published before 2024. This means that the EU will not have a full picture of what has been happening in a crucial area affecting half of its population for a period of around five years!

MIIR , together with a total of 17 European media outlets within the framework of EDJNet, attempted to generate the most up-to-date map of violence against women in Europe today. By requesting statistical figures from the competent national authorities for the years 2010-2021, MIIR created a new database which contains important findings for the direction of gender-based violence in European countries. With the contribution of iMEdD Lab the data was analyzed, focusing on the years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The research was based on two primary data sources. The first of these are the EIGE indicators for recording intimate partner violence against women and femicide by male perpetrators, as included in the 2021 Gender Equality Report , which includes data up to 2018. EIGE defines “intimate partner violence” as any act of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occurs between former or current spouses or partners, regardless of whether they live in the same house. The teams participating in the investigation sought and contributed as up-to-date data as possible, which was audited based on EIGE guidelines. 

Regarding “Femicide”, it is worth mentioning that EIGE adopts the statistical definition of “the killing of a woman by an intimate partner and the death of a woman as a result of a practice that is harmful to women”, and places crimes pertaining to these characteristics to “Indicator 9” which measures the deaths of female femicide victims aged 18 and older. In Greece there is no specific law for the criminal prosecution of the act of femicide, and so the phenomenon is monitored in the country through the collection of data regarding the female victims of intentional homicide, while the relationship with the perpetrator is generated in combination with the law for the handling of domestic violence.

As a second source and tool for informal “verification” of the results, Eurostat databases were used, providing data for the crimes of intentional homicides, rapes and sexual assaults, where the perpetrator is a partner or family member, up until 2020, as well as some details on the criminal sanctions against perpetrators. In the case of Greece, data was collected from the General Secretariat for Gender Equality, which in turn collected data from the Hellenic Police and the ministry of Justice. Along with Slovenia, Greece was one of the countries that contributed data in most categories. But the hidden picture behind these is quite dark.

The data black hole on gender-based violence in the EU

Following the contribution of new data, on the basis of the first data source, the total number of femicides from 2010 to 2021 in the 20 countries providing data is estimated at 3232 – but no data is available for eight EU member states (Poland, Bulgaria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland, Romania). However, the above figure is a sign of serious indications of underreporting by the police authorities. This is because, at the same time, Eurostat data shows 6593 intentional homicides of women in Europe between 2011-2021, including 4208 by partners and 2385 by relatives (these figures concern these 20 countries: Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden).

Both for our research and for policy-making, the lack of up-to-date data is a major limitation. EDJNet members discovered significant gaps in the publishing of recent data by state actors. Adding to this is the lack of data with similar, and thus comparable characteristics. “No score is given to the EU in the domain of violence, due to a lack of comparable EU-wide data,” claims EIGE , which is looking for ways to overcome this obstacle. Despite these hurdles, the data now included in MIIR’s primary database yields important findings on the recent direction of gender-based violence in Europe. 

Explosion of femicides in Greece

For more reliable results, due to both incomplete data and different methods of recording femicides based on the EIGE index from country to country, we chose to compare not absolute numbers but rather the percentage change in femicides between years, for those countries with available data. In addition, the data was extrapolated to comparable rates per 100,000 population.

Greece had the highest increase in femicides in 2021 with an increase of 187.5%, from 8 incidents in 2020 to 23 in 2021. Sweden also took a “leap” with a 120% increase in femicides in 2018 compared to 2017, while Estonia and Slovenia saw a 100% increase in 2015 and 2020 respectively. Comparing data for the two-year pandemic period with 2019 shows that Greece, Slovenia, Germany and Italy saw a significant increase in femicides.

For the purposes of the investigation the participating teams also collected data from unofficial sources, such as local monitoring groups for the recording of femicides. Such organizations mostly monitor media coverage with the aim of countering the underreporting of violence against women. This choice was made in order to compare the official number of femicides with the unofficial one.

“We are not claiming that we are keeping an accurate count of femicides, but we are trying to demonstrate the necessity of open data. The issue of violence during the pandemic is very complex and not temporary. Based on the data we have from 2019 to 2022 we observe a persistence of the phenomenon,” says Athena Pegglidou, who founded the Greek section of the European Observatory on Femicide . For 2020 and 2021, the unofficial number of recorded femicides collected by the Observatory was higher in Greece than the official state number, by 2.4 times in 2020 and 1.4 times in 2021 respectively. In Serbia, the unofficial number of femicides collected by the NGO Autonomous Women’s Centre was almost 1.5 times higher than the official number. 

Examining Eurostat data on intentional homicides of women by men, partners or relatives, a similar increase of 156% in 2021 compared to 2020 is confirmed for Greece. The analysis further shows that Slovenia had a 100% increase in the first year of the pandemic in homicides of women by intimate partners and relatives compared to 2019. Croatia, Austria, and Hungary followed with increases of 55.6%, 28.6%, and 26.1% respectively.

Cristina Fabre Rosell works as Gender-based Violence Team Leader at the European Institute for Gender Equality, and explains that during the first lockdown of the pandemic there was a relative decrease in the number of femicide incidents, but the risk lingered: 

“Women were not at risk of femicide during the pandemic because they were stuck with the perpetrator, and therefore the perpetrator felt more confident. All the power and control was in his hands. She had nowhere to go, so she had no exit. So the intimate partner violence increased, but not the more severe form that is worse, femicide. What was more worrying for us were the measures that were to be established after the lockdown. How were we going to protect all these women that were running away from their perpetrators. And so our fear was that the severe form of intimate partner violence that is intimate femicide could increase after the release of the lockdown measures. This has happened in some member states. But we are still not able to see if this is a common pattern that happened across all EU member states, and to what extent we can say that it’s a result of these measures. We don’t have evidence. But we hope that with the collection of data on intimate partner femicide across the years, perhaps we will be able to build the evidence”.

As the figures from this data-driven investigation show, this was the case in 2021 in several countries, most notably Greece.

Increase in violence against women

The words of EIGE’s Gender-based Violence Team Leader are confirmed by the analysis of other EIGE indicators on physical, psychological, economic, and sexual violence. The figures in the following graph show the variation in the number of victims of each type of violence in recent years.

In Greece, the pandemic period was marked by a frightening 110.2% increase in victims of physical violence in 2020 and 90.4% in 2021. Specifically, in 2020, 3609 victims of physical violence were recorded, while in 2021 the number reached 6873. Meanwhile, the number of victims of sexual violence increased from 69 to 141.

In parallel, the widened use of the internet and the increase in online abuse, led to an 84.1% rise in victims of psychological violence in the country, reaching the number of 2906 victims in 2020, only to register another rise by 104.6% and reach 5350 victims in 2021. “I do think that we are now kind of conceptualizing psychological violence and people are more aware of what psychological violence is, and the huge impact that psychological violence has. I do think that this is probably the trend that we are seeing, more victims are aware of ‘this is unacceptable, this is an offense, this is violence’,” EIGE’s Gender-based Violence Team Leader explains. 

According to EIGE, at least 44% of women in Europe have been subjected to psychological violence at some point by a partner. However, there do seem to be countries that have managed to slow its spread, such as Serbia and Germany, where the increase was limited to 3.4% and 1.5% respectively in the first year of the pandemic.

There are but a few reports about enforcing economic violence against women (this is the suffocating financial control or financial bleeding that a man may exert towards his current or former partner). Of the ten countries reporting it, six saw an increase and four a decrease from 2015 to 2018. Finland had the highest average increase at 33.4%, followed by the Czech Republic at 26.6%, Germany at 12.2%, Austria at 8.4%, Spain at 6.0% and Latvia at 4.6%. On the other hand, Belgium recorded an average decrease of -0.1%, Malta a decrease of -2.7%, Slovakia a decrease of -12.1% and Serbia a decrease of -18.1%.

In regard with the sexual violence indicator, Greece, Serbia and Slovenia showed significant increases in the years of the pandemic. In particular, sexual violence in Greece increased by 115.6% in 2020 and 104.3% in 2021. In Serbia it increased by 76.0% in 2021, after a decrease of -52.6% in 2020, while in Slovenia it increased by 64.3% in 2020 and 17.4% in 2021. Germany showed an increase of 8.0% in 2020, while Hungary also noted an increase of 20.8% in 2020, but posted a shift of -6.3% in 2021.

Based on Eurostat data, Hungary and Greece recorded the largest increases in reported rapes of women in 2020, with 41.2% and 36.5%, respectively, followed by Romania and Slovenia. Overall, Sweden leads the way with 135 victims of rape and 197 victims of sexual assault per 100,000 female population between 2015 and 2020 (note that in Sweden the definition of rape was widened in 2013, and again in 2018 and this could be affecting figures). Denmark, France and Finland follow with 54, 47 and 41 victims of rape per 100,000 female population, respectively. In terms of sexual assaults, France, Denmark, Germany and Finland have the highest rates.

The negligence of law enforcement authorities that costs lives

Konstantina Tsapa was murdered on April 5, 2021 with a knife by her estranged husband in the village of Makrinitsa. On that day, inside her parents’ house, the perpetrator also murdered her brother Giorgo Tsapas. Four days earlier the killer had again violently attacked the mother of his child and her parents in the same house. Similar violent incidents had been repeated several times by the same perpetrator, but despite appeals to the police, lawsuits and a request for an injunction, the perpetrator had not spent a single night in custody.

“In the quarrel 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, to the police station, kept him there for two-three hours. But they let him go, and they told me, ‘we cannot hold him anymore’,” a devastated Apostolos Chapas told MIIR. He had seen his two children murdered before his eyes.

“The police forces had a tolerant attitude towards the perpetrator,” says Anthoula Anasoglou, an advocate for the victims’ family. “He had also been charged with domestic violence in 2021. But he was never arrested. In fact, during the trial, a police witness admitted that the police had released him a few days earlier, saying ‘Okay, they are a couple, they will get back together’.”

Dora Zacharia was unaware in 2021 that her then partner and later murderer had previously been prosecuted for illegal violence and carrying a weapon after an incident in which he had threatened his former partner. The misdemeanor offense of unlawful violence had been dropped due to the expiry of the offense, while he had received a two-month prison sentence with a three-year suspension for the offense of unlawful carrying of weapons. Another former partner, a victim of physical violence, had also filed a complaint against him, but the injunction was not heard in time.

“Dora paid for this delay with her life. We lost our child unjustly,” commented Katerina Koti, mother of the 31-year-old teacher who was murdered in 2021, to MIIR.

The available data collected in Greece for 2020 shows that of the 4436 perpetrators of domestic violence against women, 70.6% (3132) were prosecuted. Of these, 20.9% were convicted, but only 13.7% of those convicted went to prison. However, comparing the number of offenders with the number of men imprisoned, it is estimated that for every 100 offenders recorded in 2020 only 2 – a 2% percentage – were recorded as ending up in prison.

It is worth noting that the absolute figures may not fully reflect the situation in the reference year and that there may be anomalies in the data. For example, the registration of an offender in 2020 does not mean that the offense was committed in 2020, and similarly the imprisonment of an offender in 2020 does not mean that he committed the offense in the same year. For this reason, these rates are a relative estimate of the relationship between prosecutions and imprisonment of perpetrators of crimes of violence against women, recorded in a given time period, and should be interpreted as an indicator of a trend.

On average, annually, only 3% of men prosecuted for domestic violence in Greece and 5% in Slovenia ended up in prison. In contrast, in Spain, the average annual percentage of men prosecuted for domestic violence who ended up in prison was 30%, respectively.

Dora Zacharias’ mother is now a frequent participant in anti-femicide events, along with the mothers of other murdered women. Together they are urgently calling for changes in the way the state and society as a whole deal with violence against women and perpetrators of domestic violence.

In a historic decision on 22 February 2023, after 6 years of delays due to constant opposition from various member states, the European Council decided that the EU should accede to the Istanbul Convention as a transnational entity. This follows the agreement of the European Parliament, which had previously called for violence against women to be included in the list of recognised crimes in the EU. In force since 2014, the Convention is the first legally binding international text that sets criteria for the prevention of gender-based violence, and could serve as a guide for follow-up initiatives by Brussels.

On 25 November 2022, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the European Commission had asked the European Parliament to adopt as soon as possible a proposed directive submitted last March to combat violence against women and domestic violence. Among other things, the directive aims to enshrine in EU legislation minimum standards for criminalising certain forms of violence against women; protecting victims and improving access to justice; supporting victims and ensuring coordination between relevant services; and work on prevention.

The directive also proposes that data collection should finally be made compulsory throughout the EU. The extent of violence against women is underreported and under-communicated, and, as noted, the data is not easily comparable between EU countries. In fact, the directive mentions that the last relevant pan-European survey was published in 2014.

The results of the cross-border data investigation carried out by MIIR and EDJNet add substance to the aforementioned. It took a total of 18 European teams of journalists and four months of searching for up-to-date data from the relevant national authorities of at least 22 countries, in order to show whether there was an increase in femicides and violence against women during the pandemic. Some teams succeeded in obtaining new and comparable data, others did not. 

It is clear in any case that without a common European system for the recording of violence against women and the strengthening of the victims protection system, enforcement of the law and re-examining penalties for perpetrators, and systematically educating young people about gender identity and sexual relations, gender-based violence will continue to flourish. It is always a possibility of course that no one will find out about it, because incidents will simply not be recorded…

Participating media organisations

This cross-border data-driven investigation was organised and coordinated by the Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Journalism (MIIR.gr ) within the framework of the European Data Journalism Network. Data analysis and visualisations was conducted by iMEdD Lab (incubator for Media Education and Development); data analysis check was performed by Kelly Kiki (iMEdD Lab).  

14 more EDJNet members participated in this investigation, which was conducted from October 2022 to February 2023: Deutsche Welle (Germany), Openpolis, OBC Transeuropa (Italy), Civio, El Confidencial (Spain), Divergente (Portugal), CINS (Serbia), Pod črto (Slovenia), BIQdata/Gazeta Wyborcza, Frontstory.pl (Poland), Deník Referendum (Czechia), EUrologus/HVG (Hungary), PressOne (Romania), Journalism++ (Sweden). Three more media teams contributed data from their respective countries: Atlatszo (Hungary), Investigace (Czechia), and Noteworthy (Ireland). EfSyn is the main publishing partner.

* Read part 2: “The undeclared war on women in Europe: Trapped in the maze of domestic violence”
* Read part 3: “The undeclared war on women in Europe: A systemic failure to prevent femicides”

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