The EU doesn’t know how many women are killed by gender-based violence

Between 800 and 1,600 a year, but there is no standard definition or comparable data between countries. A directive proposed a year ago makes it compulsory to collect this information across the European Union.

Published On: March 14th, 2023

The last months of December and January were among the worst for male violence  in Spain: of the 49 murders in 2022, 10 occurred in the last 31 days of the year . Four of them happened on the same day. The beginning of the year was no different, and in the first month alone the number of such femicides had already hit seven. Of these 17 women murdered, 15 died at the hands of their partners or ex-partners, and in seven of the cases the alleged perpetrator already had a history of male violence.

The year 2022 was also the first year since the start of the pandemic in which normality, which seemed so far away, seemed to return. Despite Black December , the numbers of feminicides registered in Spain after the pandemic have not been affected by the spread of the virus and its social repercussions when compared to previous years: 48 and 49 fatalities each year, according to the Ministry of Equality.

For Cristina Fabré, head of the Gender Violence Team at the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the small variations in the number of femicides during the pandemic in Spain are not an isolated case: “During the pandemic, we saw a decrease in the number of murders in almost all EU member states. What we think [happened] is that women were not at risk because they had to stay locked up with their abusers. This meant that abusers felt “safe” because they had all the power and control in their hands.”

The expert also adds that Spain was one of the most prepared European countries to fight against gender-based violence during the worst times of the pandemic , as “it not only counted cases of male violence against partners, but also other vulnerable groups, such as women in prostitution networks or homeless women”.

But what is happening in the rest of Europe? Has there been an increase in the number of women killed by their partners or family members in recent years? Are these events part of a wider increase in gender-based violence , particularly domestic violence, during the pandemic? Has there been a real increase in femicide rates in Europe? And which countries are finding it most difficult to curb violence against women?

A new investigation by the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet), to which El Confidencial belongs, tries to shed light on this issue. To do so, two main sources of information have been analysed: on the one hand, the Europe-wide figures compiled by EIGE and Eurostat, and on the other hand, the most recent national data on femicides collated by 18 media outlets.

The main conclusion points to the problem of the lack of comparable data. “The EU has no score on violence due to the lack of comparable data at European level,” EIGE states. In short, there is no single definition of gender-based violence or feminicide in Europe, but rather each country makes up its own figures. To make up for this lack of data, the European observatory records the murders of women in the context of a partner or ex-partner. However, there is not information from all countries across all years. Between 2014 and 2018, the period with the most complete figures, the agency recorded just over 2,500 such murders, around 500 each year. This number, however, falls far short, as it does not include information from Poland, Bulgaria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland and Romania.

On the other hand, Eurostat’s figures on intentional homicides in which the victim is a woman show 9,400 murders between 2015 and 2020, almost 1,600 each year, with information from up to 26 countries. However, to determine which of these deaths were perpetrated by the victim’s intimate partner or someone close to the victim, Eurostat only has information from 18 countries. These murders, just over 800 a year, account for half of all murders of women. This would be the lowest figure in the range of women killed by some form of gender-based violence .

The rate is similar in Spain if we accounting for fatal victims of what Spanish law defines as gender violence from the total number of intentional homicides. Each year, this is the cause of around 60% of all violent deaths of women.

EDJNet’s research shows that there is no clear disparity in rates between the period before the pandemic and the two years after it in terms of femicides. It does highlight the case of Greece, where in 2021 the number of fatalities tripled compared to the previous year. However, among the countries with available information, the next highest increase was in Sweden, where there were 15% more murders, and in other countries such as Slovenia the drop was 60%.

“We cannot yet know whether there is a pattern common to all EU member states, nor can we say whether the trend is a result of lockdown. We have no evidence,” warns Fabra. “We hope that, with the data collection on femicides perpetrated by partners in coming years , we will be able to draw conclusions”.

Towards a Europe-wide standard

In addition to official figures, EDJNet turned to other organisations that unofficially count femicides, mainly by monitoring cases published in the media. “We are not claiming our work keeps an accurate count; our aim is to demonstrate the need for public data,” says Athena Pegglidou, founder of the Greek chapter of the European Feminicide Observatory . Unofficial data in Greece more than doubled the number of victims in 2020.

In Spain, something similar is happening: the website , which works alongside the Ministry of Equality and Social Rights and Agenda 2030, registered a total of 99 murders due to male violence in 2022, almost twice as many as the official figures. In addition to deaths at the hands of the victim’s partner or ex-partner, these numbers also include child femicides or those perpetrated by family members. Since 2010, when the website began its work, they have counted 1,359 homicides, while official records put the number of murders since 2003 at 1,182.

In order to improve the statistics, since the end of last year the data provided by the ministry also includes cases outside of the domestic sphere. Spanish figures now include murders at the hands of family members or those linked to sexual violence, even if the victim was not related to the aggressor.

In recent months, however, some progress has been made in terms of obtaining public, comparable and up-to-date data across countries. Last February, after six years of delays due to continued opposition from several Member States, the European Council requested the consent of the European Parliament to adopt the Istanbul Convention throughout the European Union.

The decision follows agreement from the European Parliament, which had already demanded the incorporation of violence against women into the list of crimes recognised in the EU. In force since 2014, the convention is the first legally binding international text that establishes criteria to prevent gender-based violence, and could serve as a reference for subsequent initiatives from Brussels.

Additionally, on 25th November 2022, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the European Commission urged the European Parliament to adopt the proposed directive presented in March of that year to combat domestic violence and violence against women. Among other things, the directive aims to establish minimum standards in EU legislation to criminalise certain types of violence against women; protect victims and improve access to justice ; provide support for victims and ensure coordination between the services involved; and work on prevention.

The directive also proposes to make data collection mandatory across the EU. This step would put an end to the fact that many cases of violence against women go unrecorded and unreported or that, even in cases where they are recorded, these numbers cannot be put into a European context, which is essential to advance policies to protect women against gender-based violence.

Calls to emergency services (016) increased in the wake of the pandemic

In addition to the change in number of deaths, the most fatal consequence of gender violence , there are other variables that serve to measure the machismo climate and reflect the impact that the pandemic has had on the victims: 68,714 calls were made to the gender-based violence hotline (016) in 2019 and that number shot up to 102,000 in 2022. For Fabre, this is a sign that, during lockdown, “domestic violence did increase”, even though the most extreme expression of violence, feminicide, did not.

Calls made to other care services, such as Atenpro (available for people who do not live with their abuser or who participate in specialised care programmes for victims of gender-based violence), have also increased in the last two years. While less than 14,500 people used this service in 2019, in 2021 the figure exceeded 16,700.

The number of women in shelters for victims of abuse is an indication of the prevalence of this scourge, but also a sign of a stronger protection system. In 2020, the latest available data, the number of women in care was 5,548 in Spain, 24% more than in 2017. The statistics also include figures for financial aid granted since 2006, when this programme began. The number of grants has risen from 199 in 2007 to more than 1,000 in 2021.

The pandemic did lead to a reduction in the number of complaints processed by the courts for violence against women , which fell by 10% in 2020 compared to the previous year. However, once the peak was over, the figures are similar to those of 2019, close to 170,000 a year.

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