Femicide: Do You Know What to Look For?

It is imperative that physicians and other health professionals be knowledgeable about the signs of domestic violence and provide resource information to at-risk women.

The Canadian Femicide and Observatory for Justice and Accountability released its inaugural Femicide in Canada report, which details the incidence of femicide in Canada through the 2018. The report is a comprehensive compilation of available data on 148 male-perpetrated murders of women that researchers identified as exhibiting common criteria that differentiates the killing of these women from homicide or female-perpetrated intimate partner violence.

Femicide is defined as the most extreme from of violence against women and is indicative of the extent of female inequality in Canada. It takes three forms: intimate femicide, familial femicide and non-intimate femicide and is a persistent social, legal, public health and human rights problem. The term itself originated in the 1970s and led to the Vienna Declaration on Femicide. Racist femicide is experienced by indigenous women or women of colour, killed because of both their race and gender. Indigenous women represent 5% of the population, yet in 2018 were 29% of femicide victims. Canada has its examples of mass femicides beginning with the Montreal Massacre in 1988, and, more recently, the Toronto Van Attack, with both perpetrators expressing anti-women, anti-female beliefs. These would be examples of stranger femicides.

Central to femicide is the victim-accused relationship. A woman is most at risk if she is in an intimate partner relationship, past or present, with the perpetrator. The home, either her home or the one she shares with the perpetrator is the location of the majority of femicides, 48%.

The Latin American Protocol for the Investigation of Gender-Related Killings of Women has been instrumental in informing the understanding of femicide as a phenomenon separate from homicide. The common theme underscoring femicide is its reliance on gender stereotypes that supports male entitlement, misogynistic attitudes, and coercive and controlling behaviour in men, and subordination, femininity, fragility and sentimentality in women.

The two most common characteristics of femicide are misogyny and/or sexual violence. Misogyny, from expressed hatred to sexual objectification, has roots in feelings of male superiority that leads to disrespect for the life of women. A man comes to believe he has the power to preserve the social order and the superiority of men while reinforcing his manhood. Sexual violence, including assault, mutilation, sodomy, and a distressed state of dress (partial or fully naked) is far more prevalent in femicides. In fact, the ubiquity of sexual violence masks the extent to which women are abused prior to being killed, for example, marital rape. Previous rape of the victim is a risk for femicide.

Relationship status and relationship state are key indicators of femicide risk, with women who are in the process of leaving their partner at greatest risk of violence. The risk is greater in the first few months. This challenge to the man’s control must be punished and the wrongs redressed. Society “rewards” men with lenient sentencing and its failure to effectively address gender-based violence. Only women are killed trying to end a relationship.

Coercive and controlling behaviour is exclusively perpetrated by men against women in intimate relationships and includes proprietary behaviour, psychological abuse, sexual jealousy, and stalking. Coercive and controlling behaviours are widespread due to their social acceptability. Because of that, red flags may go unnoticed.

In regards to familial femicide, the numbers in this report are small but enough to form patterns. At risk are young girls and younger women and older women. They represent mothers, children/stepchildren and other family members. Again, the location of death is the home.

The incidence of femicide in rural and small towns is troubling and complicated by the access to firearms. The report authors highlight the involvement of firearms as a priority research question as 34% of the cases in 2018 involved firearms. Collateral victims involve men and boys killed because of their relationship or association with the primary female victim. More research is needed to understand and address femicide among sex workers, immigrant and refugee women, older women and women with disabilities.

What can physicians do?

Femicide is a scourge in our society.

We all have a role to play in addressing violence against women in all its forms. Physicians can advance the cause by:

🔹Educating themselves on the components of intimate partner violence and the expression of femicide in our culture and society.
🔹Asking if patients feel safe in their relationships
🔹Knowing what resources are available and have ready access to them in waiting rooms and help women connect with needed resources
🔹Advocating for greater awareness and education on domestic and intimate partner violence
🔹Advocating for greater resources and designated shelter beds for women and children, especially in remote communities.<
🔹Being aware of the importance of family violence and the impact of children’s early exposure to IPV in the home on the cycle of violence in adult years.
🔹Engaging in education programs such as the VEGA PROJECT is vitally important as we try to make a meaningful change to decrease femicide in the future.

A copy of the full report can be found here.

Dr. Charissa Patricelli, MD, CCFP, dipABAM
Honorary Secretary, Director Communications
Federation of Medical Women of Canada
Perinatal Services BC Family Medicine Lead
Clinical Assistant Professor, UBC