"A silent war on women." This is how the phenomenon of femicides was defined by the Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Journalism (MIIR) in Athens in a recent survey published in collaboration with 17 news outlets in the European Data Journalism Network. Among the striking results of this post-pandemic study: Greece had the highest annual increase in femicides (+187.5 percent, from 8 episodes in 2020 to 23 detected in 2021); Slovenia saw a 100 percent increase in 2020; and both Germany and Italy saw significantly more femicides compared to pre-pandemic figures.
"The data from European countries is quite similar, but the phenomenon of femicides in recent years is more noticeable in Latin countries, partly for cultural reasons, but awareness of gender-based violence is growing." This is how Stefano Delfini, of Italy's police directorate, contextualises the latest Italian data. He is well aware of the growing attention to the phenomenon. The latest findings on gender-based violence, prepared by Italy’s interior ministry, will be presented on 8 March in connection with Women's Day.
The difficulty of collecting data on femicides
A major feature of this "war" is the very difficulty of collecting homogeneous data on femicides at a European level. 'There is no specific crime and the statistics we publish every week to monitor the phenomenon are only based on operational police data that allows us to reconstruct what happened. This is the only way we can categorise the murder according to the context in which it occurred and the relationship between victim and perpetrator,' explains Delfini.
The debate on whether femicide should be recognised as a crime in its own right is ongoing in a number of European countries. So far, only two, Cyprus and Malta, have ventured to take this step. Others (Greece, Serbia, France, Austria and Germany) have no real legal recognition. Likewise, in Italy there are aggravating circumstances for domestic and sexual violence, but to date there is no aggravating circumstance for the gender motive.
The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the main statistical reference on this subject, defines femicide as the murder of a woman because of her gender. This is the definition of the UN Statistical Commission, which has also been adopted by Istat in Italy.
EIGE, which conducts research and monitors policies on violence against women, launched a survey on femicides in 2020, but the results are not expected until 2024. In the meantime, MIIR – together with its EDJNet partners – has created a new database on gender-based violence in European countries. It uses statistical data from the competent national authorities, and covers the years 2010-2021.
The difficulty in finding robust Europe-wide data on the phenomenon is partly due to the heterogeneity of homicide classifications at the European level. In order for an intentional killing of a woman to be classified as femicide, it may be necessary for the court system to identify the perpetrator's motives. Or it may be sufficient if the murder is committed by male perpetrators and occurs between former or current spouses or partners, or in the domestic sphere. Due to the different methods of recording femicides from country to country, the authors of the survey chose to compare the percentage change of femicides using respective definitions, instead of the absolute numbers. Furthermore, data was extrapolated to comparable rates per 100,000 inhabitants.
An uneven decline
Overall, Italy has the second lowest murder rate in Europe: 0.48 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is higher only than Luxembourg (0.32) and well below the EU average (0.89). Also with regard to homicides of women, the Italian figure is lower than the EU average (0.38 versus 0.66).
However, while the number of male homicide victims has fallen sharply over the years, the same cannot be said of women in Italy. For them, the improvement has been much slower. It is an indication that this is a structural problem that requires specific policies. In the early 1990s, Istat reports, five men were killed for every woman. Over time this ratio has gradually decreased to 1.6 in 2021. "The number of women killed over the years has remained substantially stable, while the number of homicides has decreased," comments the police chief.
If we consider only the killings of women by family members, partners or ex-partners, we see that their incidence has slightly decreased (from 0.36 in 2012 to 0.32 in 2021). But it has increased in relation to the total number of murders of women. In fact, the ratio of domestic homicides to total voluntary homicides of women is markedly increasing. In 2017, when it was lowest, the share stood at about 73%. By 2020, it exceeded 85%.
In short, homicides are decreasing, but not the proportion in the domestic sphere.
The situation in Italy in early 2023
When a murder occurs, the police collect a whole range of information. But the subsequent judicial process is long and the police data is not currently systematised. "After a slight decrease in women killed by partners or ex-partners in 2022, unfortunately in the first months of 2023 we are recording data in line with previous years," comments Stefano Delfini, referring to the interior ministry’s report on the phenomenon, published on 6 March. "The goal is to systematise all the information on gender-based violence," he adds, recalling that Italy's law 53/2022 specifically envisaged that there should be data collection aimed at measuring femicide.
In 2022, Italy's interior ministry recorded 319 homicides of which 125 involved female victims (about 39%). A total of 140 incidents took place in a domestic context, of which 103 affected women (almost 74%). Close inspection reveals that there were 67 crimes committed by partners or ex-partners, and 61 had female victims, i.e. 91 percent.
In addition to this data, in the first months of 2023 there has been "an increasing prevalence of murders of women within the child-parent relationship dynamic".
A law against gender-based violence
"We are working with different actors, including the Ministry of Justice, to gather more information on the phenomenon," Stefano Delfini of the police department informed us. There is an interministerial committee involving the Minister for Equal Opportunities, Eugenia Roccella, and a parliamentary commission that was recently renewed in the Senate.
These domestic moves are in line with the European Council's historic decision of 22 February 2023: after 6 years of postponements due to opposition from certain member states, the EU is set to accede to the Istanbul Convention as a transnational entity. In force since 2014, the Convention is the first binding international law to establish benchmarks for preventing gender-based violence. In parallel, the EU Commission asked the European Parliament to adopt as soon as possible a proposed directive, presented last March which sets minimum standards for the criminalisation of certain forms of violence against women.