In Czechia, legislation and data that should protect women from feminicides are missing

The number of women being murdered by their partners is not falling across Europe. The problem is real in Czechia, where legislators lack the will to tackle violence against women. A new European Union directive, however, could improve the situation.

Published On: March 19th, 2024

Illustration: Louiza Karageorgiouová, MIIR

Zdeňka, 59, stabbed to death by her boyfriend in Rokycany. Another woman, 27, mother of a seven-month-old girl, beaten by her partner with a metal object. Adriana, 35, murdered in front of her children by her partner, despite warnings from neighbours about the domestic violence.

These are brief snapshots of just three of the 260 cases of femicide – that is, the killing of a woman on account of her gender – that have been charted by the Rosa Centre, an organisation that has been helping women and other victims of domestic violence by monitoring Czech media over the past 20 years. Rosa is the only organisation in the Czech Republic that collects data on femicides.

Femicide is the gravest form of gender-based violence. According to the United Nations, approximately 47,000 women worldwide died from it in 2020. Most often, they were killed by those closest to them: a current or past partner, or a relative.

To find out how many such victims there are in the European Union, a data investigation that brought together fifteen European media outlets studied femicides and other gender-based violence in EU countries as well as in Serbia. The data came from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), Eurostat and national institutions, especially the police.

Unfortunately, the data are far from complete. This in itself points to one of the main issues: the different EU countries differ in their approach to femicides, not least in their data collection.

The data collected showed that between 2012 and 2022 at least 4221 women in Europe fell victim to femicide. The perpetrator, in these cases, was a current or former intimate partner, and the motive was the victim’s gender.

The true number, though, is much higher. Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Ireland, Poland and Romania were not included in the analysis because comparable data are missing. Moreover, not all countries analysed provided data for all the years under review.

A similar figure is revealed by the data from Eurostat, which keeps statistics on women killed by their intimate partner or family member. It is not possible to say, however, how many of these cases are femicides, i.e., murders committed in direct connection with gender.

Between 2012 and 2022, according to Eurostat, the number of women who died at the hands of their partner was 4,334, while the number of those killed by a family member was 2,472, for a total figure of 6,754 women in ten years. Even in this statistic, nonetheless, data are missing for some countries, namely Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland and Serbia.

The number of women killed at the hands of their partners is alarming especially when compared to the total number of women murdered. According to Eurostat, there were 12,431 such cases in the period under review; roughly a third were murdered by their partners.

The European Institute for Gender Equality identifies four types of gender-based violence perpetrated by intimate partners: physical, sexual, psychological and economic. All forms of this violence increased significantly during the Covid lockdowns. Since then, the situation in Europe has been looking slightly more favourable.

To give an idea, in 2018 there were 201 victims of gender-based violence per 100,000 inhabitants, on average. In 2021 – that is, during the pandemic – this number rose to 311. Last year, however, it dropped to 164, which suggests that violence against women has partially receded with the pandemic.

Other forms of violence often precede femicides. According to Blanka Nyklová, a sociologist at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, murders often follow the moment when a woman decides to leave her partner. “These murders reveal patterns that repeat themselves,” says Nyklová. “The most risky period is around the time of separation or divorce and about six months afterwards.”

That reality also reveals that most perpetrators are not mentally disturbed individuals, as some in society believe. They are often, rather, people who experienced violence themselves as children and know no other patterns of behaviour from personal experience. “If you say these people are psychopaths, you are individualizing the problem to a specific individual,” explains Nyklová. “You are completely obscuring the fact that this is a society-wide problem.”

The very definition of femicide is related to this short-sightedness. In the Czech Republic, femicide is often defined as “the murder of a woman because she is a woman”. Nyklova, though, believes that this description is too brief, because it ignores the reality that this is a structural problem based on gender inequalities in society.

According to Nyklová, femicide should therefore be defined as “the killing of a woman or girl because of her gender”. This is how femicide is defined, for example, by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the European Union’s main advisory body on gender issues.

The term “gender” also refers to social, economic or status differences between men and women. “In my opinion,” the sociologist explains, “there is a noticeable effort to avoid the word ‘gender’ and somehow to simplify this definition. But femicide is not killing a woman because she is a woman. When you say it like that, especially in Czech, you lose the very dimension that is affected by the concept ‘gender’. What this is about is not simply the killing of a woman because she is biologically a woman. This is not about biology, but about roles in society.”

The principle of femicide is, therefore, the same as it is in, for example, racially motivated murders. “In both cases,” says Nyklová, “these are murders that stem from structural inequality and structural oppression.” In the case of femicide, she adds, the problem may not be easy for many people to grasp.

“With race,” says Nyklova, “the issue is easier to understand, because other races look different and are seen as minorities. But women are not a minority.” The second reason, she says, is that so few people actually understand the persistent inequalities in society. “The fact that equality between men and women is enshrined in the constitution and that legislation is formulated to establish it does not in itself guarantee real equality,” adds the sociologist from the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Femicide as a legal concept

One of the many ways to prevent gender-based violence, according to some experts, is to bring in femicide as a legal concept. So far, three European countries have introduced it in their legislation as a specific crime: Belgium, Malta and Cyprus.

According to Cristina Fabré Rosell from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), it is currently difficult to estimate whether the change in legislation has affected the level of violence in the three countries. Femicide as a legal concept has only been around for one or two years. “It is clear, nonetheless, that it has had an impact on raising awareness of the problem,” says Rosell. “At the same time, it greatly heightens awareness of all forms of violence against women.”

To the question of whether femicide should be enshrined in Czech legislation, Senator and attorney Adéla Šípová (Pirates) says yes, it should. “Given that we have special offenses in the Criminal Code based, for example, on ethnicity, it would indeed belong there,” she adds, referring to hate crimes in which the motive for an attack is, for example, membership in a racial, religious or sexual minority group. A change in the law, Šípová argues, would also lead to a better description of the problem and strengthen prevention.

Blanka Nyklová agrees with the senator. “If it would lead to the gathering of data, femicide should be introduced as a legal concept.” Nyklová is in favour of Czech law adopting the definition used by EIGE.

The Czech Republic is not collecting data

The only institution in most European countries that provides comprehensive data on the number of femicides and on gender-based violence is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The data it holds, however, only goes up to 2018. More recent figures are still missing and almost impossible to come by in any other way.

Data for the Czech Republic are given to the European institution by the Police of the Czech Republic. Getting the numbers directly from the Czech Police, however, has been very difficult or even impossible for years. Zdena Prokopová from the Rosa Centre can confirm this from her own experience. “Years ago,” she says, “we wanted to know from a police spokesperson whether they had data on women murdered as a result of domestic violence. They refused us, saying that they don’t track this.”

Senator Šípová, who is also a member of the Government Council for Gender Equality, has experienced something similar. “I must honestly say that the police do not have very well-sorted data on violent crimes in terms of gender. When we asked about it, we were told that the police have no system for collecting it.”

The editorial board of Deník Referendum also asked the police for data on gender-based violence. We were interested, for example, in the number of women who were murdered by a family member or intimate partner – a term we defined precisely in our request.

Ondřej Moravčík, head of the press department of the Police of the Czech Republic, sent us the following response: “That is not how the statistics are designed. We need to know the individual crimes for which you want the statistics sent.”

Asked why the police do not keep statistics on gender-based violence, Moravčík replied that the police do not keep the numbers as statistics on their website. “As far as femicides are concerned, I believe there may be around 30 a year. And that number is not large enough to warrant a special statistical column,” he added.

He added, however, that if anyone requests the numbers, the police can prepare an appropriate analysis. “We have the data; it’s just not part of the statistics. We can cover such cases in much more detail with an analysis that will show, for example, what the motives were and under what circumstances the murder happened.”

Even a police analysis is no guarantee of a satisfactory result, on the other hand. Sociologist Blanka Nyklová, who participated in the collection of Czech data for the European Institute for Gender Equality, confirms that from her own experience. “We dealt with the police for half a year about this. When they sent us the data, we actually found out by accident that it was complete nonsense. For example, they included the hijacking of a plane in gender-based violence.” Only on the third attempt, she says, did they manage to get the correct figures.

So what would have to happen for the police to start systematically tracking femicides and gender-based violence in their statistics? Again, the solution lies in the hands of politicians.

“Simply put, we have only the statistics the law requires us to have,” says Moravčík of the Czech Police Communications Department. If lawmakers were to define the various types of gender-based violence precisely, he adds, police could begin monitoring them.

No data, no problem

What’s important is to start gathering data on gender-based violence systematically, both to get a clear picture of the overall size of the problem and to begin organising preventive measures. If we have enough information about this kind of violence, preventing it becomes easier.

“Here,” says Šípová, “what we are lacking is prevention. Czech society doesn’t really grasp that if someone does something, it is for a reason. That the problem is a lack of communication, psychological problems or alcoholism.”

Moreover, the lack of data frees the state from having to deal with the problem. “Not having data is actually pretty convenient,” explains Nyklová from the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences. “Then, you see, you can always say you don’t know how many cases there are. That you don’t know how many of those murders were femicides. And if you don’t know that, then the problem doesn’t really exist, and you don’t have to deal with it.”

In her opinion, the situation in the Czech Republic could be improved by two things: awareness-raising and legislation. “If the system is to change,” she says, “pressure has to come from above and below. I think there is already quite a bit of pressure from below, and there are many people here who are able and willing to get involved in solving the problem.” The problem, she believes, lies primarily in legislation and the fact that, according to the experts, preventing gender-based violence has not been an important matter for Czech politicians for a long time.

According to Nyklová, this was demonstrated clearly during the coronavirus pandemic, when the number of cases of domestic violence skyrocketed. “You have an emergency situation where you create absolutely perfect conditions for domestic violence,” she adds, assessing the actions of the government of the day. “And you do nothing. You don’t issue a single statement. You simply do nothing to acknowledge that this is at least a potential risk that comes with the measures that are being put in place.”

That the pandemic was a problem in terms of gender-based violence is evidenced by the fact that many European countries, unlike the Czech Republic, have adopted new measures. Among them are Belgium, France, Greece and Slovenia.

Istanbul Convention still not signed

All the experts consulted are sure that ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the so-called Istanbul Convention – would clearly help. The Czech Senate, however, rejected the convention in a January vote. Along with Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Lithuania, the Czech Republic remains one of the few EU member states not to have ratified it.

Looking at the individual objectives of the convention, it is clear that the Czech Republic has significant shortcomings in many of them. Ratification could therefore be of real help.

For example, the convention obliges states to systematically collect data on gender-based violence. “This is one of the reasons why the ratification of the Istanbul Convention matters,” explains Šípová. “Among other things, it should lead to better collection and evaluation of data.”

Apart from that, the convention obliges states to address gender-based violence, including by ensuring that the necessary services are adequately secured and funded. These services include, for example, the establishment of 24-hour emergency hotlines, training of professionals and regular awareness-raising campaigns.

The convention also obliges signatories to ensure that the state provides sufficient places in women’s shelters, a commitment based on the 2014 recommendations of the Commission on Combating Violence Against Women, which suggests that there should be over 1,000 beds for women and children at risk of violence in the Czech Republic. For a long time, however, there have been only ninety beds, spread across three secret shelters.

The convention does not focus solely on helping victims of violence; it also focuses on helping violent persons and obliges states to offer programmes that help aggressors learn to control themselves. Currently, there are only a few organisations in the Czech Republic that work with violent persons, and in some regions there are no programmes at all.

Representatives of the organisations that we approached agree that there is a significant shortage of services, the sector is severely underfunded and demand exceeds supply. “No government has ever taken an interest in the problem, and so there is currently no law that we can fit into,” explains Ondřej Čech, director of Tvá volba (Your choice), explaining why it is difficult to access money or even expand services. At the same time, the number of people who want to join the programmes voluntarily is growing.

The best – and often the only – tool to help people change their behaviour is an aggression management programme. “If you punish a person,” says Věra Víchová, head of the Stop Violence programme, “for example by putting them in prison, eventually they will slip back into the same patterns and go out and find another victim. So if you want to help the victims, you have to work with the violent person.”

Related to this is the lack of sex education in schools. In the Czech Republic, there is no sex education for all pupils that is also of high quality. “Sex education means education that teaches what is and what is not normal in relationships. And these relationships do not have to be directed towards sexuality at all, but also involve the family,” says Blanka Nyklová, from the Academy of Sciences, who points out that a child who grows up in a violent environment can easily adopt such behaviour as normal.

“Such a child needs teaching materials that make it clear that violent behaviour is not okay. And the child has a right to be sure it doesn’t happen,” she adds. Getting gender issues onto the school curriculum is another point of the Istanbul Convention.

If Prague were like Bucharest…

The example of Romania shows that enforcing the Istanbul Convention can indeed help significantly. The country, which has long struggled with extreme gender inequality, ratified the convention in 2016.

As part of the programme, the Romanian government funded a media campaign to promote the prevention of violence against women. “It was a big awareness-raising campaign that was on TV and plastered on billboards, for example,” explains Šípová. “It was about making women aware that something unjust could happen to them, and if it did, that they had somewhere to go.”

The number of shelters in the country also increased and the government introduced, for example, wristbands for victims and for aggressors. If an aggressor comes too close to a victim, a warning is transmitted to the police.

Why is it so difficult to enforce liberal laws in the Czech Republic? Although polls reveal that only a small part of the public opposes ratification, ultra-conservative organisations seem to be playing an unfortunate role.

A similar pattern was evident in the case of the vote on same-sex marriage, which was debated by MPs at the end of February. However, the so-called marriage for all did not pass into law, despite the fact that, according to a poll by the Centre for Public Opinion Research – CVVM, a majority of people would have liked it.

However, ultraconservative organisations such as the Traditional Family, the Movement for Life and the Alliance for the Family are speaking out against it. According to sociologist Eva Svatoňová of Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem, it was the last of these organisations that may have influenced the blocking of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

Before the vote, a document produced by the notorious Polish organisation Ordo Iuris, which is behind, for example, the tightening of abortion policy in Poland, was circulated among senators to convince them of the harm that ratifying the convention would do. “The report was probably somehow delivered to the senators by the Alliance for the Family, which cooperates with Ordo Iuris,” explains Svatoňová, who specializes in the issue of anti-gender movements.

Both organisations, the researcher points out, focus on influencing politicians. “Here in the Czech Republic they are not that popular among the people,” says Svatoňová, explaining why enforcing liberal laws in the Czech Republic is so difficult. “They do not try to mobilize crowds and they’re not interested in demonstrations. But they do have a big influence on the political scene.”

Maybe the EU will sort it out for us

There is still hope that the Senate will return to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, Senator Šípová believes. In February, together with seven other senators, she wrote an open letter to the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Marketa Pekarová Adamová (TOP 09), asking her chamber to continue discussing ratification of the convention.

This year’s elections to the Senate may give cause for hope, she also believes. “Theoretically, a third of the Senate could be renewed, and there are many senators who voted against ratification. So the votes we lacked may be there after the elections.”

In the end, however, ratification of the Istanbul Convention may not be necessary at all. In February, EU Member States and MEPs agreed on a new directive on combating violence against women. This document is the first ever piece of EU legislation dealing with gender-based violence.

The Directive should implement some of the objectives contained in the Istanbul Convention: the obligation, for example, for states to ensure that there are sufficient crisis centres and first aid hotlines, and the obligation to conduct awareness-raising campaigns.

In addition, it also focuses on the criminalisation of female genital mutilation and cyber-violence, such as sharing intimate photos without consent. If adopted, the directive would have to be implemented by the Member States.

According to Cristina Fabré Rosell of EIGE, the European Institute for Gender Equality, the directive could have been even more ambitious. “We see a lot of gaps in it, but at least it sets minimum standards that member states must respect,” says Rosell. Nonetheless, she adds, the directive is very important for countries that have not yet made tackling gender-based violence a priority.

The Czech Republic is one of those countries. “I do understand,” says Blanka Nyklová, from the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences, “that many may perceive the introduction of such measures as a complication, and possibly not because they are losing some privileges, but because they may simply feel that it is another complication in their already complicated lives. But if the current state of affairs leads to people losing their lives, basically being murdered, it would probably be a good idea to change something.”

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